There were some terrific made for TV movies broadcast in the 1970s that have yet to see the light of day. Among them were the wonderful ABC-TV "Movie of the Week" broadcasts that often boasted first rate actors under the direction of up and coming talents like Steven Spielberg. For whatever reason, precious few of these shows have made their way to DVD. However, some TV movies of the era are slowly being released as burn-to-order releases. Among them is A Matter of Wife...and Death, a 1976 TV movie that can be ordered as one of Sony's new titles. Never heard of it? Don't feel bad...neither had I. Still, the film has Rod Taylor in a starring role, so that's good enough to merit any retro movie fan's attention. On the surface, the film seems to hold a good deal of promise, with Taylor playing the role of Shamus McCoy, an L.A. private eye. The role was originated by Burt Reynolds in the hit 1973 feature film Shamus. Although Taylor has the prerequisite good looks, charisma (and hairy chest), the McCoy of the TV movie bears little resemblance to the character played by Reynolds. In the theatrical feature, McCoy was a wise-cracking cynic who made jokes in the face of certain death (a la 007). Although Taylor certainly had the same ability, he is hobbled with a rather confusing script that doesn't allow him much playfulness. He lives in the standard sub-par apartment all private dicks have to reside in (the other option being to live aboard a small boat, as with Frank Sinatra' Tony Rome and John Wayne's Lon McQ). There is also a superfluous love interest (in this case, the running gag - which is straight out of Tony Rome- finds McCoy being called away on an emergency before he can satisfy his would-be lover, played by future Wonder Woman Lynda Carter). However, the very ordinary script doesn't allow enough byplay between Taylor and his co-stars, with the exception of Joe Santos, who is amusing as a local L.A. police lieutenant who engages in some on-going ball-busting humor with McCoy. Beyond that, the plot finds McCoy trying to track down the killer of a down-on-his luck character who used to act as an informant for him. McCoy is outraged when the man is blown up in an apparent gangland assassination and promises the deceased's widow (Anita Gillette) to bring the culprits to justice. The film makes good use of L.A. locations but the overall plot is fairly pedantic, as McCoy checks out one red herring after another, getting beaten, bruised and threatened in the process.
Shamus McCoy wasn't the only big screen man of action to get sold short when brought to TV...(remember Ray Danton as Our Man Flint and Tony Franciosa as Matt Helm????) The film does have a pretty neat twist at the end that I didn't see coming and that, plus Taylor's considerable screen presence, makes the flick worth watching...though it's strictly mid-range entertainment. The DVD contains no extras, but as with all Sony burn to order titles, it is region free so it can be played on any DVD system worldwide, a nice plus for collectors.
Although Britain's legendary Hammer Films is almost exclusively associated with having redefined the horror movie genre, there were other genres explored by the studio ranging from film noir to crime and even Robin Hood sand pirate adventures. One of the more unusual entries is The Camp on Blood Island, a riveting WWII drama released in 1958. The black and white production was shot entirely in the UK, but, as was the norm for a Hammer production, creative locations and production design allow the viewer to believe they are watching events unfold in a Japanese POW camp in Malaya. The plot centers on the long-suffering British prisoners who are at the mercy of a brutal Japanese camp commandant and his equally brutal guards. The POWs learn through surreptitious means that the war has ended with Japan's surrender. Aware that the commandant had threatened to massacre all of the prisoners in the wake of such an occurrence, the senior officer among the prisoners, Col. Lambert (Andre Morell) concocts an audacious scheme to keep the news from the Japanese until he can organize plans for an insurrection and escape. Under the direction of the criminally underrated Val Guest, the film's scant 82 minute running time packs in a good deal of suspense, fine performances and intelligent dialogue. Barbara Shelly is thrown in as window dressing for some sex appeal as a fellow prisoner, but this is basically a male-oriented production that was aimed squarely at male audiences. The film's treatment of Japanese characters is predictably racist (many are portrayed by British actors including Michael Ripper!) but one must look at the movie in the context of the era, only a little over a decade after the end of WWII. There were millions of people who were still harboring nightmarish memories of the atrocities committed by the Japanese army. In typical Hammer tradition, the movie boasted a marketing campaign that emphasized gore and blood even though the film is relatively restrained in these areas. It's basically an intellectual cat-and-mouse game between prisoners and their captors that leads to quite an exciting and well-staged conclusion. The movie illustrates how Hammer Films could overcome meager production budgets to produce highly watchable, very entertaining movies.
Sony has released The Camp on Blood Island as a burn-to-order DVD. The film transfer is crisp and clean and the sleeve features the original, exploitation-oriented movie poster.
Any retro movie lover would be forgiven for thinking there would be a multitude of pleasures in The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday, a 1976 Western comedy top-lining such considerable talents as Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed, Robert Culp, Kay Lenz, Elizabeth Ashley, Sylvia Miles and the always watchable Strother Martin. Sadly, the film is a complete misfire with nary a true guffaw to be found throughout. The movie is directed by Don Taylor, who helmed some fairly good films including Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Damien: Omen II and The Final Countdown. However, comedy is not Taylor's strong suit, as evidenced by the over-the-top elements of the movie. The quasi plot finds Marvin as Sam Longwood, an eccentric plainsman who is partnered with Indian Joe Knox (Oliver Reed) and Billy (Strother Martin) in an attempt to track down their former partner Jack Colby (Robert Culp) who fled with the haul the gold hoarde the four men had discovered years before. Colby has used the stolen loot to establish himself as a respectable politician. Sam, Joe and Billy concoct a scheme whereby they will blackmail Colby into returning their share of the money by kidnapping his wife Nancy Sue (Elizabeth Ashley), a loud-mouthed and obnoxious woman who has had romantic ties to Sam in the past. For reasons far too labored to go into, the trio of men are also accompanied by a seventeen year-old prosititute named Thursday who is seeking to escape the clutches of her former madam (Sylvia Miles).
The film has boundless energy but the non-screenplay leads the characters to dead-ends. Taylor inserts numerous slapstick comedy bits that bring out the worst in Marvin, as he goes into his over-acting mode routinely. Most embarrassing is the bizarre casting of Reed as a Native American. Cursed by having to wear a mop-haired wig and grunting "Me Tarzan, You Jane"-style dialogue, Reed does the most harm to the image of the Indian since the massacre at Wounded Knee. The film lurches from extended fistfights to boring chase sequences, all designed to mask over the fact that the script is a bland, pasted together conconction. There is also a jaunty musical score by John Cameron that is played so incessently, you'll be tempted to keep the remote on "mute" mode. The only people to emerge relatively unscathed are Lenz, Culp and Martin, who provided whatever wit and charm the film boasts. On paper, the project probably looked promising, but in terms of any genuine laughs...well, they went that-a-way.
Primarily remembered as a footnote in James Bond trivia (more about that later), the 1963 comedy Call Me Bwana has been released by MGM's burn-to-order program. The film stars Bob Hope as Matthew Merriwether, a con man who has built a reputation as a courageous African explorer despite the fact that he has never visited the continent. When an American space capsule accidentally lands in the African jungle, the government is frantic to recover it before a team of Soviet spies does. U.S. agents coerce Merriwether into making a heroic trek into the area where the capsule has landed to see if he can locate it and return it safely to the government. In an amusing scene, Merriwether delays leading his safari into the heart of darkness long enough to pick up some tourist-themed maps of the country, as he has no idea where he is going. Complicating matters is the fact that he is accompanied by a sexy U.S. secret agent, Frederica (Edie Adams) and a faux father daughter team, Ezra and Luba (Lionel Jeffries and Anita Ekberg), who are, in fact, Soviet agents.Predictable but amusing sexual situations occur every couple of minutes with Merriwether's near seduction of both women interrupted by extraordinary events.
Along the way, Merriwether encounters every comical cliche the jungle can provide, from close encounters with dangerous animals to barbaric tribesmen who speak perfect English. The film's primary pleasures are simplistic but plentiful, topped by Hope's inimitable machine gun-like delivery of quips. There is also an infectious score by Monty Norman and some delightfully cheesy studio shots blended in with the limited second unit footage of Africa. (It appears that the closest the cast and crew ever got to the Dark Continent is the suburbs of London, as most of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios.) Somehow it took four credited screenwriters to bring this trifle to the screen, but it is a pleasant time-killer with an inspired cast.
As for the James Bond connection, Call Me Bwana is memorably featured on the side of a billboard advertisement that features in From Russia With Love. A SPECTRE assassin is shot and killed as he climbs through a window located in Anita Ekberg's "mouth". The film also represents the only non-Bond movie jointly produced by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. The 007 producers enlisted a stock company of talent from the Bond series including special effects man John Stears, editor Peter Hunt, screenwriter Johanna Harwood, cinematographer Ted Moore, associate producer Stanley Sopel and production designer Syd Cain, among others. Fortunately, the entire team was capable of far greater achievements or we wouldn't be discussing them today in relation to this sitcom-like production. Call Me Bwana generates some frequent laughs, but remains primarily a curious footnote in the history of Eon Productions.
Justly acclaimed as one of the greatest film noir movies ever made, director Don Siegel's 1958 thriller The Lineup has been reissued by Sony as part of their burn-to-order DVD collection. The DVD carries over the bonus extras from the film's initial release in a Sony noir boxed set from 2009. Siegel makes the most of his modest budget, eschewing studio sets for actual San Francisco locations that add immeasurably the authenticity of the story and the action sequences, which are among the most ambitious of the era. The film derived from a popular TV series of the same name and features the star of the show, Warner Anderson, as a San Francisco detective, Lt. Ben Guthrie. His sidekick, Inspector Al Quine was originally played in the show by Tom Tully but the part in the film is played by Emile Meyer, a non-professional actor whose mug perfectly suits the style of the movie. The "Mcguffin" of this caper movie is an ornate doll loaded with heroin that has been carried into the United States by an innocent tourist (Raymond Bailey). The doll ends up in the hands of an equally innocent little girl and her mother who were on the same cruise ship. However, this is just a necessary plot device to present a fascinating character study of a team of criminals who are assigned to fly from Miami to San Francisco to claim the doll and deliver the drugs to a mysterious crime lord. Things go awry from the first few frames of the movie when an attempt to steal the tourist's luggage goes wrong, resulting in the death of a crime syndicate courier who bungles the first attempt to get the doll. The resulting action follows the desperate attempts by the Miami crooks to secure the missing drugs, as their lives depend on it, as the mob will suspect they have double-crossed them and kept the heroin for themselves. The criminal team is among the most psychotic ever seen on film. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is the younger man being groomed by his older mentor, Julian (Robert Keith) to be his heir apparent. The two men are outwardly charismatic and friendly, but as the story progresses, we realize they are merciless sadists who will stop at nothing to get what they want. When they kidnap the young girl and her mother, we get a glimpse at exactly how devoid of human emotions they are.
The caper story, expertly penned by the great Sterling Silliphant, follows the efforts of the detectives to get to the drugs first-- but the cops are mere window dressing, as Siegel is clearly saving the best scenes for his hit men. Wallach and Keith rival that great pairing of Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as the creepy criminal team in Siegel's memorable 1964 remake of The Killers. On one level, Keith is acting as a father to a younger man who might be seen as an adopted son. However, it doesn't take much to see that Siegel has introduced a very clear homoerotic element to the story which becomes even more apparent when the pair end up in a "social club" and hotel that very obviously caters to homosexual men. In case there is still too much subtlety for the viewer, the place is named the Seaman's Club! (In one of the film's best remembered sequences, Wallach "offs" a would-be lover in a steam room.) The film is packed with inventive sequences that are still somewhat shocking today. It's rather amazing that some of these scenes were not diluted by squeamish studio executives. A helpless woman and her young child are kidnapped and menaced, a man in a wheelchair is thrown to his death and any number of innocent people are put in harm's way by the relentless criminal's quest to secure the missing dope. Most impressive is the climax of the film wherein Siegel films an exciting car chase that culminates on an unfinished stretch of freeway. It will have you on the edge of your seat (look for an amazing bit of stunt work in which a car is driven at high speed within feet of dropping off the end of the construction site.) All the earmarks are evident for what would become trademarks of Siegel's films: the story moves quickly, there isn't a wasted frame and the performances are terrific.
Sony's DVD boasts an excellent transfer and some very interesting extras, though the studio once again undermines the latter features by not even bothering to mention them on the packaging. There is an interview with Christopher Nolan, who discusses the influence of noir films on his own work. There is also a feature length commentary track hosted by Eddie Muller of The Film Noir Foundation and bestselling crime novelist James Ellroy, whose work includes L.A. Confidential. Muller is extremely informative, conveying fascinating information about the film and the San Francisco locations. However, Ellroy, who describes himself as "The White Knight of the Far Right" wears out his welcome pretty quickly. His efforts to come across as politically incorrect become blatantly pretentious, as he peppers his comments with expletives and makes homophobic jokes with regularity. Even Muller seems a bit taken off balance by him. Nevertheless, Sony deserves kudos for allowing Ellroy's controversial commentaries to remain intact. If you can put up with Ellroy, you'll get some great insights into the film and Siegel's methods of working.
The Lineup is American film noir at its best.
(This DVD is "all region", meaning it will play on any international system).
Warner Archive has released four more pre-code gems as their latest entry in
their FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD series (Volume
7). These films are deliciously delightful to view. When this series was
started by M-G-M/UA video in the 1990s, I collected them on laser disc. When
they went out-of-print I paid some premium prices to get used copies. I was
thrilled when Warner Home Video started releasing them and now that Warner
Archive has continued to do so, I’m
happy to know that these otherwise neglected films will continue to be
available through the burn-to-order market. This being Volume 7, one can see
that there is a market for this genre, and I look forward to further entries in
this valuable series. The bulk of the films released thus far under the
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD series have been from the WARNER BROS. & FIRST NATIONAL
STUDIOS and nobody did pre-code films any better. Cagney, Robinson, Blondell,
et. al. sizzled in these gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines films. There are the
occasional entries from M-G-M that came close, but pre-code was WARNER
BROS./FIRST NATIONAL’S stock in trade. The films in this volume are wonderful
HATCHET MAN (1932) Stars Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young in Max Factor
Asian makeup. Robinson plays Wong Low Get, a hatchet wielding hit man for a
warring San Francisco Tong (clan). When the film opens, I sniffed at the bad
makeup job they gave Robinson in typical 30s Hollywood fashion. I felt that the
racially stereotyped taping back of the corner of Caucasian eyes must be one of
the reasons these films are pre-code. But, Robinson is such a great (and underrated)
actor. He brings depth to a role that would have been one-dimensional in any
other actor’s hands. And what hands they
are! One of my cinema gurus – Tom Dillon, The Sage of 20th Street – once
pointed out to me that Robinson is always using his hands. Not just flailing
them, but utilizing these appendages as true masterstrokes of physical emoting. Robinson
is always fascinating to watch. His physical movements do not distract – they draw
you in. As the hatchet man for his tong crime family, he is sent to execute his
oldest and most trusted friend. When he arrives to carry out the hit, his
uneasiness with his assignment is made all the more difficult by the fact that
his friend understands and forgives him for what he has to do. The intended victimtells him that he is
leaving him his money and his young infant daughter to raise and eventually
marry. Fast-forward twenty years and this little girl has grown into Loretta
Young. As Sun Toya San, Young does not pull off the Asian makeup as well as
Robinson. Young is married to Robinson
only out of a sense of duty for she loves another, Harry En Hai played by evil
Leslie Fenton. When Robinson discovers this, his initial fury turns to
resignation and he allows Young to leave with her lover. Later, Robinson finds
out that Fenton has sold Young into white slavery and before you know it, he’s
back wielding his infamous hatchet. A run-of-the-mill San Francisco Chinatown potboiler
is raised a few notches by by Robinson’s moving performance. We can all name
the great pictures and roles he has been in (LITTLE CAESAR, DOUBLE INDEMNITY,
ALL MY SONS), but it is little throwaways like this that demonstrate what a
powerful performer he was. William Wellman directs. (First National &
SOULS (1932) This is the M-G-M entry in this volume. As I said above, M-G-M’s
forays into the pre-code genres were classy in comparison with Warners/First
National’s gritty, gutter-based
storylines. This was the studio’s pre-code version of their recent all-star
film GRAND HOTEL from the same year. Warren William stars as David Dwight,
president of the Seacoast Bank, which is the main tenant in this newly opened
skyscraper building. William will stop at nothing to eventually gain sole
ownership of the building. The actor
made for a charming, debonair leading man from the 30s who was known as the
poor man’s John Barrymore, complete with pencil-thin moustache. He was adept at
playing lovable, charismatic society men as well as ruthless scoundrels. In
this film he blends all of these traits and crafts a character you find
yourself rooting for, but don’t know why. He is a womanizing robber baron who
tramples over anyone who gets in his way. e William could do this and get you
to like him because his charm overcomes the natural ruthlessness of the
character and almost inspires you to want to emulate him. Tapping into our
hidden desire for power was part of the naughty appeal in these Depression era
films. This film abounds with swindles, scandals, adultery, murders and
suicides. Actress-turned-gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper plays William’s wife who
doesn’t really seem to mind that her husband is sleeping with anything that
moves, so long as he pays for her high maintenance life style. Maureen
O’Sullivan plays the young, naïve secretary who is the latest object of
William’s desires, all to the distress of William’s long suffering personal
secretary, played by Verree Teasdale. And what good is a film set in a
skyscraper without a jumper? Who is it? Get the set to find out. The art deco
sets are as much characters in this film as are the actors. You will notice
that the film opens with the first of many matte shots of the Dwight building
standing out against the New York skyline towering over the neighboring Empire
State Building in all its art deco glory. The interiors (by M-G-M art director
Cedric Gibbons) look like Radio City on crack! You know…as I think of it…I
guess watching Margaret Dumont snorting coke is more shocking then seeing Joan Blondell waking up with Jimmy
Cagney…Maybe M-G-M pre-codes are
dirtier… Directed by Edgar Selwyn (M-G-M)
ENTRANCE (1933) This is one of my all-time favorites and I had secured a copy
back in the VHS era. Thus, the film’s release on DVD delighted me. I believe it
best represents the freedoms of the the pre-code genre. Warren William andLoretta
Young are again teamed in the leading roles. William plays Kurt Anderson, the
General Manager of Monroe’s Department Store in Manhattan. His motto is:
“Smash, or be smashed!” He is basically the same character he played in
SKYSCAPER SOULS, but in a cheaper suit, on a lower floor and in a lower-paying job.
He’s also even more ruthless. He tells both employees and the store’s pompous
board of directors to go to hell whenever his heavy-handed business methods are
questioned. In one of the most memorable scenes he summarily fires a thirty-year
employee on the spot because the employee questions one of his new innovations.
The employee later jumps to his death from a 9th story window out of
shame. When told of the ex-employee’s suicide William answers: “When a man
outlives his usefulness he ought to jump out a window!” This kind of writing
reminded me of Rod Serling’s PATTERNS from 1955 written for KRAFT TELEVISION
THEATER. I am sure Serling must have seen this film and was inspired by it.
William is training an employee who he feels has the fire in his belly to make
it in this “smash, or be smashed” world. The young protégé is shocked at his
view, but William shows him that softness has no place in the cutthroat world
of business. This film puts forth complex questions that must be rationalized and
manages to do it in a concise 75 minutes without a wasted frame. That is the
beauty and wonder of the WARNER/FIRST NATIONAL films. They are tight, taught
and intense. Directed by Roy Del Ruth (First National & Vitaphone)
(1933) This film stars a young Bette Davis as a free living fashion illustrator
who is “living” with an up-and-coming business executive, Gene Raymond. He
wants to marry her, but she feels that marriage is unnecessary and that matrimony
kills romance. Eventually she gives in and all her premonitions turn out to be
true. Even at this early point in her career, Davis is portraying a character who
wants to stand on equal footing with men. In this film she is a successful businesswoman
who basically does not need a man in the traditional sense, something that
broke with the social mores of the era. This story was a remake of a film from
two years prior; ILLICIT that starred Barbara Stanwyck (another pre-code sex
symbol). WARNERS/FIRST NATIONAL was not
above remaking films within a short
period of time. WARNERS filmed THE
MALTEST FALCON in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. Five years later
they remade it as SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William and Bette Davis. Then,
five years after that, they filmed the classic version directed by John Huston
with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. In this film, Davis shows the strength of
character that would come to be the earmark of her career. The film is filled
with great pre-code dialog: (Raymond): "I'm
just about fed up with sneaking in...Let’s get married so I'll have the right
to be with you." (Davis): "What do you mean 'right'? I don't like the
word 'right'." (Raymond): "Let's not quibble about words." (Davis):
"No, I'm not quibbling, 'right' means something. No one has any 'rights'
about me, except me." As in most of the WARNER/FIRST NATIONAL films, a lot of
juicy stuff happens in a taught 67 minutes. Once married, Raymond tires (as
Davis predicted) and begins to philander. In order to even the score, Davis
starts her own affair with Raymond’s business rival, played by lovable WARNER
stock player, Frank McHugh. By the end of the story, Davis and Raymond
reconcile…for the moment. Directed by Robert Florey (First National &
4 films are presented on a disc a piece. THE HATCHET MAN, EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE
& EX-LADY include their original theatrical trailers, which are a lot of
fun. It is a study in itself to see how the spicy little numbers were sold to
the public. Image quality is quite good – about the same as you would see on
TCM. Even without digital re-mastering, these films jump out at you and drag
you into an era before purity ran amuck.
In perfect timing for Father's Day, Warner Brothers has the perfect gift for your dad...(or "Godfather")...two superb Blu-ray collections of classic gangster movies.
The "Classics" collection features Blu-ray editions of Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, The Petrified Forest and White Heat. A superb way to enjoy legends such as Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.
The "Contemporary" collection unsurprisingly showcases Martin Scorsese with The Departed, Mean Streets and Goodfellas...plus there is also Heat and The Untouchables.
The sets are jam-packed with exciting documentaries and an abundance of bonus extras. Each set is also packaged in lavishly illustrated hardcover book format.
So forget that cashmere bowling ball bag you were gonna get dad, and concentrate on these gems...It's an offer he won't be able to refuse.
Click here to order the "Classics" collection from Amazon and save $10
Click here to order the "Contemporary" collection from Amazon and save $10
Once again I must tip my hat to Twilight Time for inspiring me to watch a movie I had heard of but never had the slightest inclination to experience. I always assumed that the 1945 Fox flick Leave Her to Heaven was just another soap opera romance. However,the new Twilight Time Blu-ray release presents this film in its all its Technicolor splendor-- and it seems safe to proclaim this complex drama as a true classic. In fact, according the informative liner notes by Julie Kirgo, the film really tested the boundaries of the dreaded motion picture "Code" that ensured most adult subject matters had to be watered down. Not so with this movie. Kirgo describes it as a true "film noir" despite the fact that its gorgeous Technicolor cinematography won an Oscar for Leon Shamroy. The point is that, if a movie is "noirish" enough in all other aspects, it does not have to have been photographed in black and white in order to be included in the genre. The story opens with a dashing but mild-mannered young novelist named Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who is on a train traveling to New Mexico to visit an old friend, Glen Robie (Ray Collins), who has invited him to stay at his impressive home in the desert. He finds himself seated opposite a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who just happens to be reading his latest book. After meeting cute, the two engage in some suggestive banter and flirting. Richard is pleasantly surprised to find that the young woman, Ellen Berent, is also going to be a guest at Robie's home. After disembarking from the train, Robie is at the station to greet them, along with Ellen's mother (Mary Philips) and vivacious younger sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Turns out the family has come to the Robie house for a rather somber undertaking: they are spreading the ashes of Ellen's father in the desert, in accordance with his wishes to keep an old family tradition alive.
During the course of their stay at the ranch, Richard and Ellen continue their flirtation, even though he notices an engagement ring on her finger. The ring suddenly disappears and, before Richard can get his thoughts together, Ellen announces to one and all that she and Richard are getting married. Too smitten to resist the offer of bedding his gorgeous bride-to-be, Richard relents. However, an uncomfortable moment comes about with the unexpected visit of her fiancee Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), a prominent Boston attorney who is about to embark on a political career. Quinton is outraged at being snubbed and humiliated and leaves for Boston in a huff. Ellen is dismissive of her treatment of him and in the blink of an eye, she and Richard are married. The first few weeks are blissful, as the couple spends time in a backwoods cabin at a resort where Richard is writing his next novel. Soon, however, Ellen becomes disgruntled at the amount of time Richard's writing takes away from their time together. She tempts him to give us his writing career and live off of her sizable bank account, but Richard refuses. Tensions grow as it becomes apparent that Ellen is a total narcissist who can only find happiness when she is the center of a man's attentions. Things worsen considerably when the couple arrive in Georgia to visit Richard's teenage brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is in a sanitarium where he is combating physical ailments that have left him unable to walk. The younger boy idolizes his big brother, who does all he can to motivate Danny to continue with therapy in the hopes that he will one day be able to become mobile. At first, Ellen displays a loving and compassionate concern for the young boy...but she soon resents the amount of time Richard spends with him. Her jealousy of their relationship leads to one of the most chilling screen moments I have ever seen-- a plot device that is quite shocking, so I won't reveal it here. However, it only opens the door to the gradual deterioration of the Harland's marriage. Ellen tries to ensure Richard's affections by "accidentally" becoming pregnant, then, on a whim, concocts a plan to lose the baby because she is unhappy with the change in her physical appearance that the pregnancy is bringing. This is an equally shocking sequence, one that must have resulted in plenty of debate among the self-censors at the Code office. That the scene survived ensured that Leave It Heaven could take its place among the great dramatic screen stories of the era. As Ellen becomes more paranoid, she begins to unjustly suspect her own sister of bedding her husband-- a suspicion that leads to the film's very dramatic conclusion that features Vincent Price is a truly impressive performance.
The entire cast performs very ably under the assured direction of John M. Stahl, but it's clearly Gene Tierney's triumphant showcase. Nominated for an Oscar for her performance, Tierney must certainly go down in movie history as one of the screens' great villains. The scene in which she allows an unspeakable horror to take place in front of her eyes while she sits like an iceberg watching the tragedy unfold will haunt viewers long after the film has ended. The movie also benefits from a great score by Alfred Newman, that is alternately romantic and threatening. Leon Shamroy's cinematography- particularly in the desert sequences- adds to this juxtaposition between romance and menace. He photographs Ellen as though she were a goddess- but does so in a way that also hints at the menace in her character.
The Twilight Time limited edition Blu-ray (3,000 units) boasts a superb transfer that does full justice to the film's rich production design. The release features an audio commentary by Darryl Hickman and Richard Schickel as well as a trailer and short bit from Fox Movietone News. A terrific release of a terrific film.
Ernest Borgnine's final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez has been released on Blu-ray on the Indican video label. The following is my review of the film's recent theatrical release:
The independent production is a modestly-budgeted family comedy/drama that presents the legendary Oscar-winner with the kind of showcase role that actors in their nineties almost never have. Borgnine makes the most of it, too, giving a terrific and moving performance that earned him the Best Actor award at last year's Newport Film Festival. Written and produced by Elia Petridis, Fernandez centers on Rex Page (Borgnine), a cantankerous old coot given to griping about every aspect of life. He seems oblivious to the fact that he has an adoring wife (June Squibb), a devoted middle-aged daughter (Dale Dickey) and and a worshipful granddaughter (Audrey P. Scott). Rex is frustrated by his failure to fulfill his dream of becoming a big time actor on the silver screen. He once came close to landing the leading role in a spaghetti Western, but lost out to a competing actor. He's spent a lifetime in self-imposed hell, obsessed with watching this B movie and learning every line of dialogue, which he repeats to anyone in his presence. When a health crisis sees the fiercely independent Rex move into a nursing home, a series of incidents motivate him to reevaluate his life. The nursing home is a money mill for corrupt bureaucrats who use the patients as cash cows. It doesn't take Rex long to figure this out and he quickly wears out his welcome by insulting and chastising fellow elderly patients who are part of a click belonging to the corrupt family that owns the facility. He also is abrasive towards the largely Hispanic staff of nurses and orderlies, often referring to them in unflattering racial insults.
The relationship between Rex and his caregivers gradually softens, however, when the young staff members learn that Rex, a former popular DJ, once briefly met and shook the hand of the film's titular character, Vincente Fernandez, a "Mexican Frank Sinatra" who enjoys mythic stature in the Hispanic community. Rex transfixes the staff by telling and retelling his account of this brief meeting in the 1970s. This common bond allows Rex and the staffers to form a mutually respectful relationship that grows stronger by the day. Rex particularly takes a shine to his nurse Solena (stunningly beautiful Carla Ortiz)- and he comes to her defense, saving her from the clutches of would-be molester Dr. Dominguez (Tony Plana), the chief administrator. In a scenario that is a clearly geriatric version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Rex inspires his young friends to stand up for their rights and take on the oppressive bureaucrats who exploit them. He must also deal with challenges in his own life when his family feels he's been alienating them in favor of his adopted family at the nursing home.
The film contains more than its share of sugary scenes and corny cliches. (The villains are so lacking in any redeeming qualities that they practically twirl their mustaches.) Nevertheless, director Petridis offers Borgnine the finest role he's had in more years than I can remember. He dominates every scene and, ironically for his final film, looks like the picture of good health. Petridis, who must clearly be obsessive about spaghetti westerns himself, cleverly manages to intertwine many aspects of Western movie lore into this contemporary story so that even a card game between Borgnine and a nursing home nemesis is drenched in Leone-like imagery and music. This homage extends to the brilliant title credits which are cleverly derived from the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood "Dollars" trilogy. This is a feel good family film that is marred by one easily correctable misjudgment: the insertion of a completely unnecessary expletive said from a mother to her young child. It's wildly out of place in an otherwise uplifting tale for all ages. If director Petridis is wise, he'll exclude this from the video and pay-per-view versions of the film.
I only had the pleasure of meeting Ernest Borgnine once several years ago for an interview for Cinema Retro magazine. He struck me as a warm, honest and kind individual. Thus, perhaps I had a bit more of a personal outlook when viewing Borgnine's final sequence in this film, which Elia Petridis handles brilliantly. It's so touchingly filmed and directed that I was moved to watch this scene several times. Not since John Wayne's final scene in The Shootist has a legendary actor had a more appropriate on-screen send off.
The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez is not high art, nor does it pretend to be. However, it is an enjoyable film that refreshingly extolls family values. The supporting cast members are all very talented and a pleasure to watch, but is Ernie Borgnine who justifiably dominates the movie and your memories of it.
The Blu-ray release, which boasts an excellent transfer, includes commentary track by director Elias Petridis and producer Darren Brandl, who both enthusiastically share their memories of making the movie. They both acknowledge that the film has been praised for its superb title sequence, but bizarrely don't seem to be aware of the fact that it is a brilliant homage specifically to Sergio Leone's Man With No Name movies. Instead, they simply imply it is based on traditional Westerns. Come on guys, watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and you'll see exactly why everyone loves the credits to Vicente Fernandez. Even the film's ad campaign is creatively based on that classic. The Blu-ray also contains the original trailer and other trailers for Indican video releases, most of which are films centered on themes of social significance. There is also a bonus supplement of raw footage shot by Brandl on his cell phone of the behind the scenes aspects of the production. While the footage doesn't shed much light on how the movie itself, it does illustrate how the production team had to cope with a very limited budget (everyone is crammed into a small work space). There is also a good deal of reverence in seeing young Petridis return from his first meeting with Ernest Borgnine and speaking incredulously about how the legendary actor promised to defer to him as director and call him "sir". It's nice to see how much respect this new generation of filmmakers had for the revered star.
Sony has released the 1955 crime drama 5 Against the House as a burn-to-order DVD. The little-remembered film is interesting on a number of levels and boasts an impressive, eclectic cast. The low-budget flick depicts four young ex-G.I.s who fought in Korea who return to the States and enroll in college. Al (Guy Madison) is a straight-as-an-arrow type who is engaged to sultry nightclub singer Kay (Kim Novak). Ronnie (Kerwin Matthews) is a brainy upstart with delusions of grandeur and a superiority complex. Roy (Alvy Moore) is an affable joker who is very much a follower, not a leader. Brick (Brian Keith) is the most troubled of the group. He bares psychological problems from his combat experience and has a hair-trigger temper. The guys' only vices are taking an occasional trip to Reno, Nevada and engaging in some minor gambling and womanizing. However, Ronnie concocts an audacious plan to prove he can outwit the authorities and rob a casino. He suggest that the plan be put into operation with the intention of returning the money to the casino after the fact. Ronnie wants to build his ego, not his bank account. Roy and Brick sign on to the plan, but when Al balks, Brick's anger comes through. He threatens his friends with a gun and forces them to pull off the incredible scheme. The film, deftly directed by Phil Karlson, makes effective use of on location shooting in Reno at a place called Harold's Casino. The movie works best as a character study and the performances are all first-rate, with the exception of Madison, who is a bit of a stiff in the lead role. Novak is her usual sexy self and Keith, long-underrated for his dramatic capabilities, gives a powerful performance. The film is one of the earliest to take a sympathetic look at the emotional toll war takes on returning veterans. 5 Against the House is engaging throughout and although it is unremarkable in the long run, it represents the kind of overlooked gems that the burn-to-order DVD format is rescuing from complete obscurity.
You don't have to be gay to admire John Schlesinger's 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday, but it probably helps in terms of appreciating just how ground-breaking the movie was in its day. As a straight guy of high school age when the film was released, I do remember it causing a sensation, although it would literally take me decades before I finally caught up with it. Gay friends always spoke reverently of the movie and expressed how the most refreshing aspect of the story was how "normally" a loving relationship between two adult men was portrayed. In viewing the film as a recent Criterion Blu-ray release, I feel I can finally appreciate that point of view. Gay men have long been portrayed in movies, of course, but for the most part they have been depicted as objects of ridicule or as sexual deviants. There were the odd attempts to present gay characters as sympathetic in films such as The Trials of Oscar Wilde and the brilliant Victim. Yet, even these fine efforts present homosexuality as a burden those "afflicted" must bear. Stanley Donen's 169 film Staircase offered fascinating and bold performances by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as two aging queens. However, the studio marketing campaign over-emphasized the oddity of two of the film industry's great lady's men playing a gay couple. In fact, the ad campaign showed Burton and "Sexy Rexy" giddily dancing, thus falsely conveying that the film was a comedic romp instead of a poignant and intelligent look at loving homosexual relationship. Schlesinger, one of the first unapologetic directors to come out of the closet (if, indeed, he was ever in one) decided that the most daring aspect of this highly personal film would be in its very ordinariness. The story covers a complicated love triangle between three disparate people. Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) is a middle-aged, Jewish London doctor who is involved romantically with a much younger man, Bob Elkin (Murray Head). Hirsh doesn't flaunt his homosexuality, nor does he attempt to painstakingly deny it. He just lives his life as a respected member of his community, although it is clear his family thinks he's straight. (In one amusing, though uncomfortable sequence, Hirsh attends a Bar Mitzvah and has to endure attempts by nosy female relatives to set him up with his "dream girl"). The relationship between Hirsh and Bob is fairly intense, but is compromised by one uncomfortable fact: Bob is bi-sexual and is carrying on an equally intense love affair with an older woman, Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson). Both Hirsh and Alex know about each other and (barely) tolerate the triangle as the price of having Bob in their lives. For his part, Bob is a rather self-absorbed young man who seems to have genuine affection for both of his lovers, but is also either oblivious or uncaring about how the uncertainties of the relationship are affecting their psychological well-being.
Sunday Bloody Sunday was released a time when the gay rights movement was moving into high gear in the post-Stonewall period. It illustrates why the 1970s is regarded by many as the most liberating decade in film history, with old line directors like Hawks, Welles and Hitchcock working at the same time young turks like Schlesinger were shaking things up in a way the old masters never had the opportunity to do, thanks to the restrictive motion picture code. Sunday is primarily remembered for an eyebrow-raising scene in which Hirsh and Bob engage in a romantic kiss. There's nothing sensational about the tasteful way in which this rather routine gesture between lovers is presented on screen. In fact, it was the sheer lack of sensationalism that drove home Schlesinger's primary message: that loving gestures between gay men can be every bit as routine as they are between husband and wife. The fact that the kiss was enacted by two straight actors did add considerable gravitas to the moment and must have caused more than one straight viewer to think "Well, if they don't care about enacting such a scene, why should I feel uncomfortable watching it?" Schlesinger also dared to film tasteful but passionate bedroom scenes between Bob and Hirsh. Nevertheless, nothing much actually happens in Sunday Bloody Sunday. The story was based in part on real-life experiences and people from Schlesinger's own life. The story merely traces the ups and downs in the love triangle as Bob causes panic in both Hirsh and Alex by announcing he is thinking of moving to America. Hirsh and Alex do have an unexpected face to face meeting during this crisis and their sheer civility and inability to engage in more than light banter only adds to the dramatic tension.
The primary attribute of the film, aside from Schlesinger's spot-on direction, is the brilliance of the performances. Glenda Jackson was then emerging as a national treasure for the British film industry and the little-known Murray Head acquits himself very well indeed. However, it is Peter Finch's performance that dominates the movie as we watch his character go from loving acceptance of Bob's youthful self-absorbing actions to downright fury as his realization that Bob will never have the same passion for him. It's a superb performance on every level. Some viewers find the film's bizarre final sequence in which Hirsh addresses the viewer directly about his philosophy of life, but I found it to be a distraction and somewhat confusing. Nevertheless, this is a fine film, worthy of the praise it has generated over the years, and one that remains remarkably timely today.
The Criterion Blu-ray is right up to the company's top-notch standards. The transfer is beautiful and there are the usual informative extras including:
New interviews with Murray Head (who says that, as a young actor, he found his character to be rather despicable), cinematographer Billy Williams (who supervised the Blu-ray transfer), production designer Luciana Arrighi, Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann and the director's long-time partner, photographer Michael Childers who shot many of the great production stills for the film.
A 1975 audio interview with Schlesinger
Screenwriter Penelope Gillatt's original introduction to the published screenplay (there is plenty of coverage throughout the Blu-ray concerning the tense working relationship between Gillatt and Schlesinger, who accused the writer of taking the lion's share of credit for a screenplay he had extensively rewritten.)
The original theatrical trailer
Extensive liner notes by writer Ian Buruma, Schlesinger's nephew who appeared as an extra in the film.
In all, an outstanding tribute to an outstanding work by one of the era's great filmmakers.
When I came of age in the eighties and nineties, cinema
art houses were filled with American independent films, most of them gems. It
seemed that then movie lovers could see nearly every film released. In the
years since the number of independent films have grown exponentially, and I
often worry that I’m bypassing, or even worse completely ignorant, of some
worthwhile films that get lost in cinematic obscurity.
Exhibitionists (2012), the second feature from director Michael
Melamedoff is such a film, a compelling chamber piece about seven characters
revealing their true desires over the course of two nights. At the heart of the
film is fragile Regina (Pepper Binkley), who we meet nervously awaiting the
arrival of her husband Walter (Richard Short), an agent provocateur filmmaker
just returned from a cross-country film shoot. In tow he brings fellow
crewmember Gordo (Daniel London), whose dutiful wife Gretchen (Lauren Hodges)
has been keeping a tight watch on Regina, and Lynn (Ella Rae Peck) their lovely
and vivacious intern who has been earning extra credit with George off the
clock. Tensions between the five occupants at Walter and Regina’s apartment are
already strained when the arrival of Regina’s brother George (Mike Doyle), on
leave from a seminary, and musical diva Blithe Stargazer (Laverne Cox) set a series
of betrayals and revelations in motion.
First conceived as a stage play, screenwriter Michael
Edison Hayden has adapted his own work into a film that bears a strong
resemblance to higher profile plays-turned-films closer (2004) and carnage
(2011). All three examine the private truths behind seemingly healthy
relationships through expertly written characters. The Exhibtionists never quite reaches the probing dexterity of the
other two pieces, but what it lacks in sophistication it makes up for with a
titillating and refreshingly ambiguous sexuality. Both Hayden and Melamedoff are
aided by a group of skilled and attractive actors. Viewers expect a few thin
performances in micro-budgeted films, but this cast is uniformly committed and
capable. Particular standouts are Ella Rae Peck of NBC’s deception, whose
natural beauty and delivery make an instant impression and Laverne Cox
(Netflix’s orange is the new black), a force of indeterminate sex whose palpable magnetism affects everyone else in
the film. Their two scenes together sizzle and mark a tipping point in the
Shot in just over ten days, Melamedoff deftly places
the viewer in the middle of the action often utilizing reverse shots to canvas
multiple characters’ perspectives. It’s
a shame he didn’t have more funds to work with because although the film has
definite style, it also cannot hide it minimal budget. The score by Teddy Blanks,
who also created the opening sequence, is unapologetically electronic and
retro. It’s a little too similar to music heard in soft core cable offerings,
but manages to establish and sustain a sense of unease throughout the film.
Perhaps it is the association with the music cues, but The exhibitionists ultimately fails to fully deliver on its title
and promise of sexual provocation. I thought I might be watching a modern take
on the sexploitation films of the sixties and seventies such as Score (1973) by Radley Metzger, but this
film never evolves into erotica. Despite that The Exhibitionists is an intriguing work and engages the viewer
from the first shot to the last.
The Exhibitionists was unfortunately
relegated to a few festival appearances in lieu of a theatrical run. Now it’s
available on VOD and DVD, presented along with a few extras. Best amongst the
special features is Michael Melamedoff’s very informative commentary which
illustrates how purposefully he went about constructing the film. Also included
are some behind the scenes stills, Walter’s edited pitch for Blithe that
features some hardcore footage and a festival interview with director
Melamedoff and actor Richard Short, all short but nifty. Viewers can also
download the score if they want to stage their own party at home. Hopefully with this release The Exhibitionists will finally find the
audience it deserves.
It's pretty amazing how many ways studios have devised to market and re-market The Three Stooges. The latest attempt is Sony's made-to-order 3 DVD set titled Rare Treasures from the Columbia Vault. It's a bit misleading in that the bulk of the material pertains to individual short films starring Stooge cast members, but for this reviewer, that's also what makes the set so special. There are eleven hours of material in the set including two feature films and 28 shorts. The features are Rockin' in the Rockies, a 1945 musical comedy that features the Stooges as inept prospectors in the modern west. The film seems to have been made to promote promising musical talent of the day. The story has the boys kidnapping a Broadway talent agent and holding him hostage until he hears their friends perform their revue, which includes numbers by Spade Cooley, the "King of Western Swing". The Stooges comedy bits are strewn too infrequently throughout, so I confess to keeping my finger on the "fast forward" button during some of the dated song sequences. The second feature is Have Rocket Will Travel, a late career feature for the Stooges during their renaissance period with Curly Joe taking over from the original Curly and Shemp. It's a pretty limp affair, but there is a certain charm about the total innocence of the comedy skits. It depicts an era in which three grown men could be depicted snuggling together in one bed without the slightest hint of a sexual connotation. The script finds the Stooges accidentally ending up on a space ship to Venus. Even within the way out realm they often operated in, this premise is over-the-top. Fortunately, the film ends with a more traditional setting with the boys upstaging snooty guests at a black tie dinner party. Keep an eye out for future Time Tunnel star Robert Colbert as the romantic lead.
The set also contains some brilliant Columbia cartoons from the 1930s that feature first rate animation. The cartoons depict famous movie stars of the day including the Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Kate Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, Charles Laughton, etc. They are truly wonderful pieces of entertainment. Most refreshing is the inclusion of numerous shorts featuring solo gigs by Stooge actors who never quite got the acclaim they deserve. Shemp Howard headlines some of the funnier efforts, but there are also terrific turns by Joe DeRita and Joe Besser. Although Besser was married in real life, he always played overtly fey (dare we say "closeted"?) characters long before Paul Lynde had come along. His starring roles in these shorts finally afforded him the spotlight he deserved. Similarly, the porcine DeRita was a terrific comedic presence who never quite got the acclaim he deserved. Both men were of considerable girth which makes their obsession with performing high risk pratfalls even more impressive. Both Besser and DeRita's films find them in almost identical plot situations. They are generally married to conniving women or outright battle axes who henpeck them mercilessly. Kitchens often provide ample opportunity for widespread destruction as the simplest of cooking tasks inevitably meet with disaster. These post-War era shorts also accentuate the military and one of the funniest finds Besser drafted into the Army, where he drives his top sergeant crazy with his goofy behavior. (It's pretty easy to see where the inspiration for the Gomer Pyle character derived from.) It should be noted that these short films feature a stock company of brilliant comedic second bananas who appear numerous times. If the films resemble Three Stooges humor, it's not by coincidence: many were directed by the Stooges' own Jules White. Curiously, a couple of the Joe Besser shorts appear twice in re-titled versions that exclude the original prologues.
In all, this 3 DVD set is manna from heaven not only for Stooges fans but for anyone who appreciates great comedy of this era.
The set contains the following :
Rockin' In The Rockies (1945) (feature film with Curly)
Have Rocket--Will Travel (1958) (feature film with Curly-Joe)
Shemp Howard solo shorts: Home On The Rage (1938) The Glove Slingers (1939) Pleased To Mitt You (1940) Money Squawks (1940) Boobs In The Woods (1940) Pick A Peck Of Plumbers (1944) Open Season For Saps (1944) A Hit With A Miss (1945) Off Again, On Again (1945) Where The Pest Begins (1945) Jiggers, My Wife (1946) Mr. Noisy (1946) Society Mugs (1946) Bride And Gloom (1947)
Joe Besser solo shorts: Waiting In The Lurch (1949) Dizzy Yardbird (1950) Fraidy Cat (1950) Caught On The Bounce (1952) Aim, Fire, Scoot (1952) Spies And Guys (1953) The Fire Chaser (1954) G.I. Dood It (1955) Hook A Crook (1955) Army Daze (1956)
Joe DeRita solo shorts: Slappily Married (1946) The Good Bad Egg (1947) Wedlock Deadlock (1947) Jitter Bughouse (1948)
Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoons The Bon Bon Parade (1935) The Merry Mutineers (1936) A Hollywood Detour (1942)
A year after their Oscar-winning triumph, The Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden and writer/producer Carl Foreman teamed again for another drama set in WWII, The Key. The 1958 drama is primarily a love story but there is plenty of action on the high seas, all superbly photographed in B&W by the great Oswald Morris. The offbeat story is set in England in the early days of the war before America entered the conflict. Britain stands alone against the seemingly unstoppable German forces and fights to maintain shipping on the high seas in the face of ever present U-Boat threats. William Holden is Capt. David Ross, a Canadian serviceman who is reluctantly assigned to skipper a rescue tug boat that is sent to retrieve men from sinking ships that have been torpedoed. There is good reason for his less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of his assignment: the tugs are lightly armed sitting ducks for the U-Boats. The specter of death hangs over every mission. Ross is pleasantly surprised to be reunited with fellow tug captain Chris Ford (Trevor Howard). The two old friends bond again by getting drunk then returning to Chris's apartment. He has a rare commodity. While most servicemen are crammed into barracks-like hotel rooms shared by numerous other men, Chris has been fortunate enough to secure his own apartment. He explains that the place has an eerie tradition. The present occupant is to make an extra key and give it to his best friend, who will inherit it in case he dies. Ross is startled to find that the apartment comes with another fringe benefit that is passed down from doomed owner to doomed owner: Stella (Sophia Loren), a beautiful but somber Swiss refugee who acts as housekeeper and lover for the latest tenant. Still, Ross sees that there is genuine affection between Stella and Chris and the two even announce plans to marry. A premonition convinces Stella that Chris will never return from his next mission: a prophecy that sets in motion an engrossing series of events of which nothing else can be revealed here without providing "spoilers".
It's glorious to see three great stars of the cinema playing off each other. (While Holden and Loren reached superstar status, Howard was always regarded as a character actor- albeit, one of the best in the business.) Under the sensitive direction of Carol Reed, the leisurely-paced story contains elements of the supernatural with the premonitions and apparitions accompanied by Malcolm Arnold's eerie score. The supporting cast is also impressive with the great Bernard Lee in fine form as a naval officer with the unpleasant duty of sending rescue boats on virtual suicide missions. In all, a fine film all around- and one that neatly avoids the cliched final sequence you believe the script is building to.
Sony has released The Key as a burn-to-order DVD. The transfer is excellent, though no extras are included.
The Warner Archive continues to delve into little-remembered crime movies with the release of F.B.I.: Code 98, yet another in the seemingly endless attempts of J. Edgar Hoover to use popular entertainment as a vehicle to promote himself and his bureau as incorruptible pillars of American society. (As usual, Hoover ensures he is personally thanked in the credits, mentioned in the script, depicted in photos on office walls and appears in footage at the end of the movie.) Still, this is a tense little thriller that engages the viewer from minute one with its timely depiction of a task force trying to prevent acts of home-grown American terrorism. The plot centers on a group of business executives who are flying to a government conference. Their company provides crucial materials and engineering for the U.S space program. A nondescript employee of their company concocts a clever scheme whereby he manages to switch out a piece of luggage being loaded onto the executive's corporate jet. Inside is a time bomb. Only a quirk of fate allows it to be discovered and dismantled in time. The F.B.I. is brought in under the direction of field director Robert Cannon (stiff-jawed Jack Kelly). He works with the intended victims to sort out who might have had a grudge against them and this inevitably leads to delving into some sensitive areas of their personal lives- including illicit affairs between married people. The film is tense and engrossing throughout, thanks to expert direction by Leslie Martinson. The capable supporting cast includes Ray Danton (whose baritone voice always seems overly dramatic for any role he played), the always-watchable Andrew Duggan, Philip Carey, William Reynolds, Jack Cassidy (in pure heterosexual mode) and Vaughn Taylor as the mousey, unlikely would-be terrorist. To compensate for the low budget, there are some unintentionally amusing gimmicks to provide some sweep to the locations. An F.B.I. office in Vegas looks directly out onto the casinos on the strip; a Washington D.C. office is in direct line with the Capitol Building; a Florida office has a view of a space launching pad. Still, Martinson's use of real locations throughout most of the film adds to the dramatic intensity. The film takes pains to present every F.B.I. man as scrupulously honest and dedicated. The worst they are guilty of is flirting with secretaries.
F.B.I.: Code 98 is well worth a look. It's tightly scripted, well-directed and doesn't have a single wasted frame.
There are no bonus extras on the DVD.
Click here to view preview clip and order from Warner Archive
Loophole is a 1954 low-budget crime movie that is one of a number of a "B" movie titles now available from the Warner Archive. These minor gems remind us of the glory days of cinema when movies were made expressly to be shown as second features. Loophole, directed by Harold D. Schuster, was originally released theatrically by Allied Artists. The film presents Barry Sullivan as Mike Donovan, a respected bank teller who is living a comfortable middle class existence with his wife Ruthie (Dorothy Malone) in L.A. In the midst of a high profile annual bank audit, a nondescript man named Tate (Don Beddoe) manages to pass himself off as one of the auditors. His sexy girlfriend Vera (Mary Beth Hughes) poses as a customer to distract Donovan while Tate cleans out his cash drawer without his knowledge. At the end of the day, Donovan is astounded to learn he is $50,000 short. He makes the first of several mistakes by not reporting the loss immediately to his boss. It's Friday afternoon and he wants the weekend to ponder what could have happened to the money. By the time he reports the theft on Monday morning, he's the prime suspect. The insurance company assigns a bulldog of an investigator, Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw), to tail him everywhere. In those days before suspects had Miranda rights, Donovan feels the full fury of being interrogated by police and Slavin without the benefit of a lawyer present. His boss believes he is innocent but he is forced to fire Donovan anyway. Every new job he finds ends abruptly when the Javert-like Slavin inevitably shows up and spreads the word that he is a suspected thief. A chance encounter brings Donovan face to face with Tate and triggers his memory of the phony auditor who had access to the cash. Donovan makes another mistake by taking after the man himself, a tactic that results in Tate being mistaken for his accomplice. The entire affair ends with a tense confrontation between Donovan, Tate and Vera in a Malibu beach house.
Loophole is consistently engrossing throughout its scant 80 minute running time. Filmed mostly on actual locations, the movie gives retro cinema lovers a great view of L.A. as it appeared in the mid-1950s. The cast is peppered with excellent character actors and the black and white cinematography is crisp and impressive. It's a real treat that such forgotten treasures are now readily available on made-to-order DVD. There are no extras on the DVD.
Click here to view clip and to order from Warner Archive
Impulse Pictures has released Sexcula, a 1974 Canadian hardcore horror spoof, on DVD. The film is more notable for the story behind its production than the finished product, which is generally fairly anemic. It was made in Vancouver with the aid of a loophole in the Canadian government's tax shelter funding even though hardcore porn was illegal in the country until 1978. Consequently, the movie was never shown beyond an alleged initial screening for cast and crew. Many doubted the very existence of the film, which is presumed to be the first ever Canadian feature length porn flick, since it hasn't been seen at all over the decades. . The bizarre scenario finds a young couple who discover a diary from 1896. In it, an incredible tale is told about a female mad doctor named Fallatingstein (get it?) who used her skills to create an artificial life form: a hunky would-be sex slave named Frank (get it?) The only problem is that while Frank is desirable to the doctor, the "monster" is uninterested in the doctor. In frustration, she reaches out to her relative, Countess Sexcula (Debbie Collins, Canada's answer to Marilyn Chambers). The two women attempt to "raise the dead" in terms of Frank's flaccid sexual state. Although the title hints at overt horror themes and most of the action takes place in a dungeon, Sexcula herself just seems to be an exotic, perpetually horny young woman with no particular ties to the supernatural. (The tag line for the movie promises "She'll suck more than your blood!") The rest of the film consists of humorous vignettes in which the two females try every imaginable scenario to get Frank aroused. Even the inevitable lesbian scene fails to do the trick. The joke is carried on throughout the cheaply made production, which intersperses soft core sex with a few hardcore sequences. The comedy is overt, obviously having been inspired by the goofy appeal Deep Throat held for mass audiences. However, the movie is completely lacking in wit and Ms. Collins' performance makes Marilyn Chambers look like Kate Hepburn. The actresses seem stiff and uncomfortable. There is also footage from what appears to be an unrelated production showing a young couple in a wedding chapel who turn their exchange of vows into an orgy. (Being polite Canadians, they ensure that the preacher joins in as well.) Perhaps the most offbeat sequence features a comely female robot sexually assaulted by a gorilla! The film lurches towards a Blazing Saddles-like conclusion with cast members clearly walking around the sets, indicating the whole production has been a joke.
Sexcula strives to be a cut above average porn but the talent simply isn't there to carry off the gimmick. Even the hardcore sequences are dimly lit and not very erotic. However, the Impulse release deserves praise because it represents the first public distribution of this film, which was rumored to exist but had been lost in Canadian archives. Liner notes by Dimitrios Otis, who is referred to as a "Porn Archaeologist" (how does one get a degree in that field?) present the interesting tale of how the movie reels were located and salvaged. An original trailer is included as well as a pop art comic synopsis of the movie by Rick Tremble. In all, an impressive package for a relatively unimpressive film. However, there is that terrific poster art concept used on the sleeve.
The Warner Archive has released the 1972 MGM thriller The Carey Treatment as part of its DVD-on-demand program. James Coburn has one of his best roles as Dr. Peter Carey, a rebellious but esteemed surgeon who moves to Boston to take a prominent position at one of the city's most esteemed hospitals. The charismatic Carey loses no time in gaining friends, alienating top brass and bedding the comely chief dietician (Jennifer O'Neill). However, he soon finds himself embroiled in a politically volatile investigation when a fellow surgeon is arrested for performing an illegal abortion on the 15 year old daughter of the hospital's crusty administrator (Dan O'Herlihy). (The movie was released a year before the landmark Roe V. Wade decision that legalized abortion in America.) Coburn believes his friend's protestations of innocence and decides to launch his own investigation into the matter. The case soon unveils a lot of skeletons that some prominent people would prefer to be kept in their closets and Carey finds himself subjected to blackmail and physically assaulted as he comes closer to discovering the shocking truth behind the young girl's death.
The little-seen 1983 thriller Double Exposure has been released on DVD by Scorpion Releasing as a special edition. The film has an interesting background. It was originally filmed in 1971 under the title of The Photographer by director William Byron Hillman with Michael Callan cast as a photographer of beautiful women who also turns out to be a serial murderer. Hillman and Callan were frustrated that the movie received only a limited release. Twelve years later, they collaborated on a remake of the movie using the title Double Exposure. This time around, Callen served as an uncredited screenwriter on Hillman's new script and he also produced the movie, as well. Major script changes included having the main character, Adrian Wilde (Callan), not certain if he actually is a murderer. He's a generally kind and decent man who eeks out a modest living photographing models. He resides in a mobile home in L.A. which serves as his business office and bachelor pad. He is haunted by recurring nightmares of him committing horrendous murders of some of the women he photographs. When they actually start turning up dead, he is convinced he must be the culprit. He seeks guidance from his shrink (Seymour Cassel) and warns his new girlfriend, sexy Mindy (Joanna Pettet) that he has doubts about his sanity. He also seeks comfort from his brother B.J. (James Stacy) , a rather belligerent, bitter man who nevertheless has not allowed the loss of an arm and a leg prevent him from making a career of stunt driving. He also proves to be quite a lady's man and in one memorable sequence mud wrestles a bikini-clad girl in a bar. As the body count builds, Adrian slides further into madness.
The film is definitely of "B" movie caliber, but it's generally engrossing and well-made. Callan delivers a very fine performance in the lead role and he is more than matched by Stacy. Pettet does well as the female lead, and exposes a lot of flesh in a fairly graphic bedroom scene. There are other familiar faces who pop in and out of the film including Pamela Hensley as a detective assigned to track down the killer, Cleavon Little (largely wasted) as her perpetually grouchy superior officer and Robert Tessier as a skid row bar manager. Sally Kirkland and future Saturday Night Live star Victoria Jackson also have early career roles. Hillman directs efficiently, though there the ending veers into cliched "woman in jeopardy" territory and the final few frames of the movie, in which the killer is unveiled, boasts some fine acting but disintegrates into a confusing and frustrating scenario in the last few, hectic seconds. Nevertheless, Double Exposure is a good thriller, well-made on a modest budget.
The DVD has several impressive bonus features including commentary track by Callan, cinematographer Michael Stringer and script supervisor Sally Stringer, an interview with Callen conducted by Katarina Leigh Waters, the original trailer and a selection of bonus trailers from other DVD releases. Recommended.
I confess to never having heard of this film prior to receiving a review DVD from Warner Archive. In fact, it's fairly obscure even in its native Britain. However, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, released in 1970, is one of the most amusing and perceptive political satires I have ever seen. The dark comedy opens with the titular character (Peter Cook in top, deadpan form) inexplicably arriving at a mismanaged London publicity and advertising agency. With nary an explanation about his identity or background, Rimmer simply makes himself at home, though uninvited. The inept brass assumes some big wig has implanted Rimmer among them to be an efficiency expert so they defer to him on virtually everything. In short order, he turns the failing company into a fabulously successful force in terms of marketing potential political candidates. Finding a way to manipulate the dumbest segment of the Tory voter base, Rimmer quickly becomes a major force in choosing which candidates are the most charismatic, yet intellectually vacuous. Before long, this man of mystery, who says little but achieves a lot through shrewd schemes, is on the A list of London socialites. He's courted by all and beautiful women are at his disposal. Rimmer chooses a comely lovely (Vanessa Howard) as his bride, but she soon learns even she is a tool for political expediency as Rimmer himself becomes a top candidate for public office. He's a British precursor to Robert Redford's Bill McKay in The Candidate (1972). Both end up being ironic political forces, though Rimmer is a clever manipulator while McKay is an empty shell who rises to the top by serving as the charismatic tool of his puppet masters.
The script was co-written by Cook, John Cleese and Graham Chapman- heavyweight comedy talents who specialize in theater of the absurd. However, the writers keep their comedic instincts restrained, opting wisely for subtle laughs rather than slapstick. The inspired supporting cast includes such comedy stalwarts as Cleese, Chapman, Arthur Lowe, Denholm Elliott, Norman Rossington, Dennis Price with Ronald Culver and Harold Pinter thrown in for good measure. The cynicism of the piece is that a brainless segment of the public will be satisfied by the superficial aspects of candidates even if they know nothing about those candidate's backgrounds or motives. Rimmer becomes the toast of the town without ever taking a firm position on any issue. He smiles a lot, charms everyone and remains firmly in the middle of the road on any topic. Thus, the story is as timeless today as ever. Witness the parade of ignorant, empty-headed people who have emerged as leading political figures in the last year alone and you'll understand why The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer plays more like a horror film today than the comedy it was originally intended to be.
Scorpion has released a fun horror double-feature DVD consisting of The Hearse (1980) and Blood of Dracula's Castle (1969).
The Hearse is a comparatively upscale production (anything is upscale compared to the Dracula flick) that top-lines two good actors: Trish Van Devere and Joseph Cotten. Van Devere plays Jane Hardy, a recently divorced thirty-something woman who is suffering from psychological problems relating to the end of her marriage. When her mother dies, she inherits a charming country home that used to belong to her maiden aunt. Jane decides to spend the summer in the house in the hope that a rural lifestyle might ease her personal problems. From minute one, she has second thoughts, however. The townspeople are rude to her and there are rumblings about some nasty legends relating to the house. The lawyer who is overseeing the property (Joseph Cotten) is a nasty, cynical old coot who does everything in his power to dissuade Jane from staying in the home she has inherited. The reasons why become immediately apparent. No sooner has Jane moved in than strange things start occurring. Doors slam on their own, noises emanate from the attic and cellar and she believes she catches glimpses of her aunt watching her. In the glorious tradition of "women in haunted houses" films, Jane doesn't do the sensible thing and move out. Rather, she convinces herself there is a logical explanation. However, the nightmarish scenario moves outside of the house and Jane (who inevitably finds herself driving at night on back country roads) is terrified by a mysterious hearse that tries to run her off the road. She later learns that the secret may relate to her aunt's past. In reading her diaries, Jane is shocked to find that her aunt was once a shy, conservative woman who was planning on marrying a preacher. However, she fell under the spell of a sexually perverted man and ended up becoming practicing the black mass with him. The two devil worshipers were killed in an accident but the hearse carrying their bodies was also destroyed in a bizarre twist of fate and their bodies were never found. Despite the increasing threats on her life, Jane remains determined to stay in the house and seeks solace from a new man in her life, the handsome Tom Sullivan (David Gautreaux), who is so creepy he practically sprouts horns and fangs, but Jane never catches on. The film presents every cliche of the genre including a heroine who uses candles and flashlights to investigate things that go bump in the night. (There may have been a reference to an old Indian burial ground, too, but I could have missed it.) There are some genuinely creepy scenes but long-time editor George Bowers (who made his directorial debut with this film) can't figure out how to milk any suspense from the overall weather-beaten scenario. The film is best in the early scenes when Jane is haunted by relatively mundane occurrences. By the time the movie reaches its climax, Bowers resorts to an "everything but the kitchen sink" formula that throws in exorcisms and car chases. The premise of a demonic automobile should have been sent to the cinematic junk yard after the unintentionally hilarious The Car (1977). The Hearse isn't as bad as all that, thanks to fine performances by Van Devere and Cotten, but it falls short of its overall potential. It makes for passable entertainment, but in the aggregate, it's pretty much stuck in neutral. The DVD contains an introduction by scream queen Katarina Leigh Waters and there is an audio interview with screenwriter Bill Bleich. The original trailer is also included.
Blood of Dracula's Castle is an infamous gem from director Al Adamson, who was so inept he made Ed Wood look like Sir David Lean. The film was shot in 1966 but not released until 1969. Falling squarely into the "so bad it's good" category, the story centers on Glen and Liz (Gene O'Shane and Barbara Bishop) a young couple who are engaged to be married. Glen learns he has inherited a castle in the California desert (!) that belonged to an eccentric uncle. Upon arriving at the castle, they are greeted by George (John Carradine), an erudite but eerie long time butler to the residents of the mansion. They turn out to be the Townsends (Alex D'Arcy and Paula Raymond), a bizarre couple who claim they hold royal titles of Count and Countess. They are distressed to learn that Glen and Liz intend to move into the residence, which means they will have to find a new abode. This makes for a major problem because they are vampires and are quite happy with their present situation, which finds them keeping young women chained to the wall in their dungeon and using them as a source of blood supply. (They feel that biting victims in the neck is a rather quaint way of sustaining immortality when one can indulge in refreshing blood cocktails.) The Townsends extend every courtesy to the young couple who intend to evict them and introduce them to their friend Johnny (Robert Dix), who is actually an escaped convict who gets murderous urges whenever there is a full moon. Before long, Glen and Liz are victimized and facing life in the dungeon. Townsend also reveals he is the original Count Dracula, a plot device thrown in merely for marquee value as there is absolutely nothing about him that evokes any of the popular perceptions of the Count. In fact the Townsends are about as threatening as Gomez and Morticia Addams, as they trade witticisms and charm their intended victims with their perpetually jolly outlook on (eternal) life. There is one other resident of the mansion: Mango (Ray Stevens), an Igor-like mute who captures young women for the Townsends and who is periodically rewarded by being allowed to sexually abuse them. The film is a complete disaster on all levels, which makes it fun to watch. The irresistible presence of John Carradine only adds to the fun. The shoddy sets are somewhat offset by the fact that director/producer Adamson found an actual castle-like mansion that was located in the California desert. The film is padded out with chase scenes that are designed to make the clock run out in order to get to an appropriate running time. Adamson's ineptness is part of the film's charm, as is the presence of members of his own stock company who gamely appeared in his numerous low-budget productions. The DVD features Katrarina Leigh Waters interviewing production manager John "Bud" Cordos, who went on to direct his own films, most notably Kingdom of the Spiders. Cordos is an affable guy who relates marvelous stories about his friendships with Adamson and Robert Dix (son of silent screen legend Richard Dix). He states that Dix never played the Wolfman in the film, which may seem erroneous because there is footage of Dix's character turning into the Wolfman. Research shows that this footage was inserted into the film to spice up TV syndication sales and that the actor in the furry rubber mask was not Robert Dix. Thus, Cordos is correct in his statement.
The entire DVD double feature package is very well produced by Scorpion founder Walter Olsen, who goes to extraordinary lengths to give first class treatment to second-class films. Half the fun of watching a Scorpion DVD is indulging in the informative extras, as is demonstrated with this package. This double feature DVD evokes memories of the glorious old days of theatrical double features. Highly recommended for pure kitsch value.
If you think Terrence Mallick makes films infrequently, consider the career of Robin Hardy, who gained acclaim for his direction of the 1973 British horror classic The Wicker Man. In the ensuing decades, Hardy has been associated with precisely three other feature films, all little-seen: as writer of Forbidden Sun (1989), The Wicker Tree (2011, as writer and director) and the 1986 film The Fantasist, which he also wrote and directed. The latter film suffered from a botched release and poor reviews, with the verdict being that Hardy's much-anticipated return to filmmaking was a letdown. Scorpion Releasing has issued The Fantasist on DVD and the movie deserves to be re-evaluated with the passage of time.
The film is set in Ireland and Hardy makes excellent use of both urban and rural locations. Moira Harris (sometimes billed as Moira Sinise nowadays due to her marriage to actor Gary Sinise), an actress who is American by birth, gives an astonishingly convincing performance as a Patricia Teeling, young Irish woman who moves from her family's farm to Dublin in order to break the monotony and pursue a career as a teacher. Urban life agrees with her and she takes out a room in a boarding house. However, Dublin is being terrorized by a serial killer who phones young women and chats with them in a seductive, yet sexually explicit way. Some of these women end up being so intrigued by the mystery man that they invite him to their apartments only to be sexually abused and murdered. Patricia is oblivious to the murders. She befriends a charming American, Danny Sullivan (Timothy Bottoms) who is also a boarder in the house. He's quirky but funny and seems harmless enough- until she overhears him making obscene phone calls. The tension rises when a female boarder in the house falls victim to the serial killer. In panic, Patricia's roommate moves out, leaving her alone with the increasingly creepy Danny. She finds an ally in Dublin Detective McMyler (Christopher Cazenove), who becomes especially welcome when Patricia begins receiving the ominous phone calls herself. In one terrifying incident, she finds herself in the house with the unseen murderer but manages to make a daring escape by crawling atop the roof and climbing down to the ground. The police peg Danny as the prime suspect but they can't find anything but circumstantial evidence so he isn't indicted. A fellow teacher, Robert Foxley (John Cavanagh) also emerges as a suspect. He's also eccentric and carries a torch for Patricia. The film comes to a suspense-filled climax with Patricia finding herself captured by the killer. In a cringe-inducing, sexually explicit sequence, she decides to attempt to save herself by using erotic techniques to disarm her would-be murderer. The film is only compromised by an epilogue set on a ferry that reduces this otherwise superior, intelligent thriller to the level of a typical slasher movie with some over-the-top action straining credibility.
The Fantasist has much to recommend about it. All of the performances are first rate and the identity of the killer will keep viewers guessing right up until he is revealed. Harris is simply superb and the supporting performances are equally first rate. As director and writer, Robin Hardy impresses with this double-duty assignment, eschewing studio shots for making use of actual locations. The film has a cliched scenario but is a far more mature and sophisticated work than most other "women in jeopardy" thrillers.
Scorpion's DVD edition features a first rate transfer and is presented as part of the label's signature Katrina's Nightmare Theatre which means you get an optional, campy introductory segment hosted by former wrestler (!) and B movie sexpot Katarina Leigh Waters. She not only provides plenty of eye candy but also relates some interesting facts about the making of the movie and its undeserved neglect by audiences and critics. The package also contains the original trailer as well as an ample sampling of trailers for other Scorpion releases. The box art seems to be a new creation and doesn't even mention Harris on the credits, which seems patently unfair.
I may be one of the few critics who looks favorably on The Fantasist. It's got plenty of flaws, but its Dublin setting and fine performance by Moira Harris earn it a hearty recommendation.
The Warner Archive has released the 1965 film adaptation of Agatha Christie's oft-filmed Ten Little Indians. It's hard to imagine that the scenario of a disparate group of exotic strangers being summoned to a chateau by a mysterious host once seemed like a fresh concept. Certainly, the concept already had moss on it when this film was made. However, there is something timeless and intriguing about such a story line, primarily because it generally affords a star-studded cast to interact. There are no superstars in this European version of the story, but the movie is packed with wonderful actors. This time around, the individuals are invited to an opulent chalet atop a snow-covered mountain top, accessible only by cable car. (The location is never specified, but the exteriors were filmed in Austria and the interiors were shot in Ireland.) The victims-to-be include square-jawed American hero Hugh O'Brian, sexy Brit Shirley Eaton, fresh frommaking a sensation in Goldfinger, exotic Israeli actress Daliah Lavi, one-time teen idol Fabian, Swiss actor Mario Adorf, German actress Marianne Hoppe and a wonderful array of great British character actors: Wilfred Hyde-White, Leo Genn, Dennis Price and Stanley Holloway. Each of these people has a secret they are hiding and all are accused of being responsible for the death of an innocent person by their unseen "host" Mr. Owen (the voice of an uncredited Christopher Lee). The crisply-photographed B&W production evolves predictably under the competent, if unexciting direction of George Pollock, who had helmed the hit Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford. The film is more serious in tone than those popular mysteries, but there is still a good deal of witty byplay as the diverse people try to find out what secrets their companions are shamefully hiding. The gimmick of murdering them off one by one revolves around the old Ten Little Indians children's rhyme. There are also some decorative figurines of Indian braves that adorn the dining hall and one of them vanishes each time a person is killed. In the time-worn tradition of such thrillers, as the group is reduced in size, they vow to all stay together in the same room. This logical solution to thwarting the murderer among them is dispensed with regularly, as the women saunter off into dark basements and up ominous staircases to investigate strange noises.
The film is curiously lacking in any genuine suspense, but it's glorious to revel in the sight of some legendary British actors trying to upstage and outwit each other in this deadly cat-and- mouse game. The film is consistently entertaining and the star power is more impressive today than it was back in the day. The climax of the film is surprising, if a bit of a stretch. It's all accompanied by a hip jazz score by Malcolm Lockyer that sometimes seems a too jaunty and upbeat for a tale revolving around serial murders. For sex appeal, O'Brian gets to walk around shirtless while Eaton has two (count 'em, two) opportunities to strip down to her bra and panties, reminding us why her early retirement from the film industry deprived young men of countless unrealized fantasies.
The Warner Archive burn-to-order DVD is a crisp, clean transfer with only a few minor artifacts evident. There are some nice bonus features including a "Who-dunnit" gimmick that was obviously inserted into some prints of the film before the real murderer is revealed. The angle is worthy of an old William Castle horror flick as bombastic graphics and film clips are used to remind viewers of who was murdered and how they met their demise. The clip challenges them to take this 60 second slot to discuss with other audience members who they feel the culprit is. It's a hokey, but wonderful touch. There are also trailers for this movie and the Miss Marple films, as well. In all, an irresistible treat.
Click here to view original trailer and to order from the Warner Archive.
The Warner Archive has released That Hagen Girl as a burn-to-order DVD title. The 1947 soap opera stars Shirley Temple as Mary Hagen, a high school girl who is socially ostracized when it is suspected she was born illegitimately. The presumed father is Tom Bates (Ronald Reagan), who twenty years earlier had been romancing the high school prom queen. She suddenly vanished without explanation only to return with her parents and kept in isolation. The rumor mill indicated that she had given birth to a daughter, who was then given to a local childless couple to raise. Tom makes attempts to see his girlfriend but is rebuffed by her strict parents. Eventually Tom moves to another town but returns many years later when he inherits a house in his hometown. Now a successful lawyer, the handsome Tom turns heads even as the rumors resume over his presumed status as Mary's real father. Tom is unaware of the "scandal" and ironically ends up befriending young Mary and acting as her mentor. He later realizes that his presence in town has reignited the unsavory rumors that have haunted Mary since her birth. Her only real friend is Julia Kane, a young teacher who tries to stop the bullying of Mary by fellow students and school officials, who single her out as too undesirable to play the lead in the school play. Ultimately, Tom takes a bold stand to defend his presumed daughter- and in the process informs her of some very surprising facts about her heritage.
That Hagen Girl is predictably corny by today's standards, with even the wildest teenagers dressed in suits and ties and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm-style dresses. A product of the era, I suppose. Nevertheless, it's hard not to find much of the goings-on unintentionally funny. Yet, the film does manage to pack a punch in terms of being among the first such movies to denounce bullying and illustrating its devastating impact on the sense of self-worth of those who are victimized by it. The seemingly bold subject matter of out-of-wedlock birth becomes somewhat watered down in the conclusion, but the movie remains an enjoyable and engrossing experience thanks to the considerable star power of Reagan and Temple, who segued rather nicely from child star to respected adult actress. Reagan is his usual stalwart self. If there wasn't an Oscar-worthy performance lodged within him, it can be said he was a far better actor than most of his future political opponents would ever concede. Lois Maxwell is particularly impressive and won a Golden Globe as most promising newcomer for her performance. (She would become beloved by movie fans worldwide as James Bond's original Miss Moneypenny.)
The DVD features a fine transfer and includes an original trailer.
Click here to order from the Warner Archive and to watch a preview clip
Some of the most inspired special edition DVD and Blu-ray releases are coming from independent, niche-market labels that afford certain film titles the kind of grandeur that would never be afforded them by major studios. Case in point: Synapse Films, which routinely releases first rate special editions of "B" movies, cult films and obscure foreign imports (often with an erotic edge). The most impressive Synapse release I've seen to date is their Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of the 1971 Hammer horror film Twins of Evil. The movie is rather notorious for representing a kinky penchant for shocking violence and a marketing campaign that implied an on-screen lesbian relationship between Playboy models (and real-life twin sisters) Madelaine and Mary Collinson. (In reality, there are no such scenes in the film.) The story is centered in a rural European village during the 17th century. The townspeople are in awe of a local nobleman named Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), a handsome but evil young man who uses his absolute power to indulge in a penchant for practicing witchcraft and seducing local girls to visit his castle where he seduces them into a life of sexual deviancy. Karnstein also has a penchant for killing off certain virgins for pleasure and selecting specific women to fall victim to his secret powers as a vampire. Karnstein's crimes results in the formation of The Brotherhood, a local group of puritan vigilantes headed by Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), a religious zealot who is also a self-appointed witch hunter. The local women have as much to fear from him as they do from Karnstein, as The Brotherhood routinely accuses young girls of being in league with the vampire. This results in them being burned at the stake in order to have their souls redeemed. In short, this ain't a great place to live if you're a single woman. Into this hellish situation come Gustav's nieces, Freida and Maria (Madelaine and Mary Collinson), two recently orphaned teenagers who must now reside with their uncle. Upon being warned about Karnstein's nefarious activities, Maria chooses to be vigilant but the more daring Freida is intrigued by stories of sexual perversion and orgies. She secretly visits Karnstein, who seduces her and turns her into his vampire lover. He convinces her to assume the identity of her sister so that Mary is convicted of murder and is sentenced to be burned at the stake.
Twins of Evil came at a time when Hammer Films were struggling to maintain the audiences they had built in the previous decade. By 1971, seemingly every studio had made an attempt to emulate Hammer's success. The result was that there was a sea of imitators and the Hammer brand became in danger of imitating the imitators. The studio decided to rely more and more on nudity and overt violence, often at the expense of storylines and character development. Although this film is part of that exploitation campaign, it ranks with the better Hammer efforts of the period thanks to a good script, intelligent direction by John Hough and an impressive performance by Peter Cushing, as one of the least sympathetic heroes he ever portrayed. Damien Thomas was being groomed as the next Christopher Lee, with the intention of being a reliable leading man for Hammer. Although he makes a compelling villain, stardom was not on the horizon for him. The Collinson twins (both dubbed for their roles) provide plenty of eye candy, but the nudity that is overtly exploited in the publicity photos is somewhat fleeting. Twins of Evil is one of the gorier Hammer films, but it also remains one of the most compelling. It ranks alongside the other two great witch hunting-themed films of the era, The Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw.
Synapse Films has presented Twins of Evil as a truly outstanding Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The extras are to die for, if you'll pardon the pun. These include a superb documentary about the making of the film that is almost feature length. Directed and produced by Daniel Griffith, this is a fairly expensive extravagance for a niche market DVD company. The fascinating documentary is titled The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil and features a very informative overview of the Hammer vampire trilogy that derived from the classic 19th century vampire novel Carmilla that introduced lesbianism into the genre. (The first two films were The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire.) The documentary includes interesting insights from a wealth of Hammer and cult movie experts including director Joe Dante, director John Hough, Sir Christopher Frayling, film critic Kim Newman and publisher Tim Lucas. It's even more entertaining if you are not well-versed in Hammer lore. Other extras include a featurette that covers a private collection of Hammer film props, a stills gallery, TV spots and trailers, an isolated music and effects track and a deleted scene that absurdly presents teenage girls singing a 1970's-style love song.
In all, a great release from Synapse Films, a company that continues to impress us with their zeal for paying tribute to often overlooked and underrated films.
One hates to get sociological or philosophical about a lightweight sex farce like How to Save a Marriage (and Ruin Your Life), a 1968 trifle that nonetheless boasts an impressive cast: Dean Martin, Stella Stevens, Eli Wallach and real-life wife Anne Jackson, Jack Albertson and Betty Field. However, the premise of the movie is so distinctly distasteful that it is sure to offend any self-respecting modern woman as well as any male who isn't still walking about clad in animal skins and clutching a club. The film, which is now available as part of Sony's burn-to-order DVD line, has a value that is more anthropological than comical. Wallach plays Harry Hunter, a successful New York business executive who is unhappily married to an attractive but shrewish wife (Katharine Bard). He finds solace by keeping a mistress, Muriel Laszlo (Anne Jackson) in an opulent apartment. His frequent visits there are as much therapeutic as they are sexual, with Muriel happily gearing her entire existence toward pleasing her man. She fawns over him, makes no demands, and pampers him constantly. When Harry brags to his best friend and fellow executive Dave Sloane (Dean Martin) about the joys of having a dedicated mistress, Dave sets out to test his theory about her never straying into the arms of another man. (One of the more cynical aspects of the script is that "kept women" are supposed to be completely loyal to their married sugar daddies). However, Dave mistakes another woman for Harry's mistress: Carol Corman (Stella Stevens), an attractive young sales girl in the corporation. When he observes her social behavior with other men, he assumes he has proof that Harry's "other woman" is cheating on him. To get further evidence, he decides to prove he can seduce her. Dave romances Carol and ends up renting her a luxury apartment right next door to Harry's real mistress, Muriel. It seems the apartment building is basically a classy bordello that houses numerous girlfriends of married rich men. In the film's most amusing scenario, Dave finds Carol understandably receptive to his sexual advances (after all, he looks a lot like Dean Martin.) Dave, however, can't take his "investigation" to the point of actually bedding the woman he thinks Harry really loves. There are some funny scenes in which Dave has to find a way to explain why he isn't eager to jump into bed with Stevens, who saunters about clad in a low-cut nightgown with a pouty look of sexual frustration on her face. He concocts a scenario whereby he explains that he is a widower whose beloved, late wife made him promise to never make love to another woman. It's a sign of the times that in 1968 you could plausibly present a plot scenario in which Carol still readily agrees to live with Dave, quit her job and devote her entire life to pleasing him. Naturally, complications ensue and she discovers she has been lied to. The script presents "liberated women" as those scorned mistresses who band together in order to force their sugar daddies to give them legally binding pension plans to get them through their later years, when they will have been discarded in favor of younger women. It's enough to give Gloria Steinem heartburn.
You don't have to be a knee-jerk liberal to wince at the entire tasteless scenario of this film. Not helping matters is director Fielder Cook's insistence that the always-watchable Wallach play his role in an "over-the-top" manner that is only matched by Betty Field's equally hysterical portrayal of an older, scorned mistress looking to wage war on all males. Usually, one doesn't analyze the production design in a romantic urban comedy, but it bears mentioning that, aside from a few second unit shots in New York City, there is absolutely nothing that suggests the look or feel of the city. A sequence showing the exterior of Dave Sloane's private club looks more like London than Gotham and the film has a rather cheesy feel to it, given the abundance of interiors. On the positive side, Martin and Stevens exude some real chemistry and there are a few scattered laughs. However, for the most part, this is a laborious exercise that celebrates an era in which women's fates were tied to dependency on the man in their lives.
The DVD presents a crisp, clean transfer but there are no extras.
Most Google searches for “Chiller,” the
five-installment horror series originally broadcast in the mid-90s on Britain’s
ITV will turn up a lot of forums where fans ask: “Does anyone else remember
being scared by this show?”
Like many old horror movies, the fright it inspired
after stumbling upon the program probably sticks in the mind more than the
episodes themselves. But while “Chiller” may not be the pinnacle of scary
story-telling, it often stands the test of time. Part of the reason: Forsaking
the trappings of cheap surprises or over-the-top gore of many horror projects
on a smaller budget, each episode builds on a single creepy or supernatural
The plots are your standard horror staples: spirits
brought back from the underworld, demonic children, haunted houses, etc. Most
are summoned through the typical tropes as well. (Pro tip: Reading ancient
inscriptions outloud with a group of carousing friends has never led to
anything good.) Although there’s not much here that hasn’t been done elsewhere,
there’s something comforting about the nostalgia of made-for-TV horror.
The special effects are limited and the sets throughout
the British countryside are both quaint and creepy. And the acting carries the
sotries. The talent assembled for the episodes includes many prolific British
actors. (John McEnery, Nigel Havers, John Simm, Sophie Ward and more all star
One can easily imagine catching one of these programs
late at night after everyone else has gone to bed and having more than a few
sleepless nights. The Synapse Films DVD print is clean, although somewhat
bare-bones: Five episodes on two discs with no special features (to be fair,
there was little demand for behind-the-scenes making-of documentaries on a
short-run TV show in the 1990s).
Whether you’re looking to see if the program stands up
to your memories or looking for a taste of horror that plays more on the mind
than the senses, “Chiller” passes the test of a creepy good time.
SFX guru Dennis Muren says, during one of
the interviews in Ray Harryhausen:
Special Effects Titan, that today special effects are no longer special. Audiences expect them, and are
no longer impressed by them. This wasn't the case back in the 50s and 60s when
master animator Ray Harryhausen was breaking new ground and entertaining
audiences the world over. That said, Harryhausen's work was right for the time,
but would not stand up with audiences not familiar with his work today. They
have come to expect the impossible, and that's what CGI almost delivers.
However, the difference between Harryhausen's creations and today's computer
generated creatures is that the latter were animated objects. They were 'real'
and as dimensional as the actors who worked alongside the. Tangible objects
that had a life of their own. Today they may seem dated, but they have far more
character than a CGI effect, which is no better than watching a computer game.
This brilliant 2-disc documentary covers the
remarkable career of the movie industry's most admired and influential special
effects auteur. A man who inspired the likes of Spielberg, Dante, Landis
Cameron and Jackson, who in their own words admit it was Harryhausen who
inspired them to become movie makers. Loaded with clips, trailers, rare test
footage, props as they are today, and even home movies from Harryhausen's
immense collection, this is a documentary to die for. Miss it at your peril.
(Note: this review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release. It has not yet been released in the North American market).
The darkest period of modern French history was the nation's humiliating defeat by Germany in 1940. France boasted of having the greatest army in Europe but was led by inept leaders who mistakenly used tactics of WWI. The French squandered the opportunity to strangle Hitler's rising armies in their cribs, preferring to simply protest the building up of his armed forces in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. France and England declared war on Germany after Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939. However, a period of inaction followed, leading many to call the conflict "The Phony War". Although France had ample time to come up with strategies, its armed forces decided to fight a defensive war on French soil. The plan proved to be woefully inept in the era of the blitzkreig. The fall of France in 1940 led to a period of political discontent that is still being debated today. In the aftermath of the war, General Charles DeGaulle, leader of the free French forces fighting from England, successfully marketed the notion that his nation was filled with patriots who consistently did all they could to resist their German occupiers. In fact, countless French patriots did indeed sacrifice their lives in order to do so - both on the battlefield and through the Resistance. Paris was liberated prior to to arrival of Allied forced by brave men and women who rose up to violently resist the most feared army on earth. Nevertheless, collaboration was the order of the day in occupied France. Hitler installed the WWI hero Marshall Petain as the head of state in Vichy, a region that was supposed to be free of German occupation. However, the world recognized it was a puppet state with Petain acting as a toady for his German masters. Petain and his co-collaborator Pierre Laval, maintained that appeasement of Germany was the only practical way for France to maintain some measure of independence. Indeed, France did avoid many of the atrocities committed in other occupied countries. However, the price of peace was full compliance with the Reich's obsessive oppression against Jews and any other group that was deemed a threat. Consequently, Petain and Laval capitulated by willingly complying with orders that meant certain death for countless French citizens.
I have always been a great admirer of Paul Henning, the crooner-turned-TV producer/writer of some of the best-loved shows of the 1960s. It was Henning who gave a voice to rural audiences by creating such classic TV series as The Beverly Hillbilllies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. If you revisit any of them today, they remain far superior to most contemporary sitcoms. Henning not only created shows that have timeless appeal, but he also brainstormed the concept of interweaving characters and plot devices between the series- a stroke of genius that brought cross-promotion marketing to new levels. Henning also prided himself on making his country characters eccentric, but never idiotic. They were simple people living simple lives and if they seemed to exist in a time warp, they were all honest, admirable folks. It was always the sophisticated city slickers who would get their comeuppance at the hands of these "bumpkins". Andy Griffith once told me that it irked him when audiences would say that the actors were just "playing themselves". He pointed out that, in most cases, these actors had long, distinguished careers prior to appearing in rural sitcoms. He wanted to stress that these were outstanding talents and should never have been pigeon-holed as actual country hicks. Paul Henning strictly oversaw quality control on his shows and demanded that every episode by family-friendly. Thus, I was in for quite a shock when I sat down to review MPI's screener copy of the 1981 TV movie Return of the Beverly Hillbillies. I don't recall this particular show, but from the get-go the title is deceiving. The only original Hillbillies are Buddy Ebsen's Jed Clampett and Donna Douglas's Elly May. Irene Ryan, who played Granny, had passed away years before. Max Baer Jr., who played Jethro, had the good sense to stay away from the project. Nancy Kulp reprises her role as Jane Hathaway, but her on-screen boss, the inimitable Raymond Bailey had also died and, like Ryan, his presence is sorely missed. (Henning cast actor Ray Young as Jethro, and although he does his best, we are all too aware that he was not part of the original cast.)
Henning's script is too over-the-top even for a Hillbillies plot device. In this case, President Reagan is desperate to solve the energy crisis. He dispatches Jane Hathaway (now a Washington bureaucrat) to track down the secret formula of Granny Clampett's white lightning, which is deemed to be so powerful it might be useful as a source of fuel. Jane arrives on horseback at Jed Clampett's mountain cabin. In the aftermath of Granny's death, Jethro went on to run his own movie studio and Elly May has opened a zoo. Rather than live alone in his Beverly Hills mansion, Jed has returned to his roots, his only concession to wealth being a bigger cabin that he has constructed. The feeble plot follows Jane and Jed's search around the premises for any remaining jugs of Granny's booze that can be brought to Washington to analyze. She is accompanied by C.D. Medford, a humorless member of the President's team who will use any ruthless method to obtain the formula for the white lightning. (One of the lamest aspects of Henning's script is a repetitive gag in which samples of the booze are repeatedly discovered only to be lost accidentally.) The role of Medford is played by the great Werner Klemperer, who is criminally misused here in a role that diminishes his talents and makes him a truly loathsome character. To compensate for Irene Ryan's absence, Henning created the role of Granny's mother! She is played by another TV legend, Imogene Coca but the character has to be one of the most grating and irritating in the history of the medium. She screeches like a banshee, runs about hitting people with a stick and otherwise making herself unwelcome. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the ill-fated venture is Henning's decision to deliberately move away from family fare to smut. That's right, this new, updated version of the series features such wholesome fare as strippers, Asian massage girls, scantily clad teenage "old maids" (young Heather Locklear among them!) and a very embarrassing striptease performed by Klemperer. Why Henning decided he had to degrade his characters in order to appear hip is not known, but he certainly should have known better. There are tasteless jokes about Jed Clampett's sex life (or lack thereof) and one punch line about Auschwitz! I kid you not...I actually had to backtrack to make sure I heard it right. Can you imagine an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies where the "funny" payoff line refers to a Nazi death camp? The movie is peppered with some welcome character actors including perpetual grouch Charles Lane, Lloyd "Shad" Heller, Lurene Tuttle and Earl Scruggs, who performs a musical number. Henning runs out the clock in the last fifteen minutes with an absurd, endless car chase featuring King Donovan in an obnoxious performance that makes Imogene Coca's character look like a model of restraint. The film is also disappointing in that Elly May and Jed only share the screen together in the last few minutes of the movie. The ill-fated venture was directed by Robert M. Leeds, who also should have known better because he worked on the last season of the original series.
Despite the dreadful aspects of the main feature, I am heartily recommending that you buy the DVD itself, if only because of the superb bonus extras. There is a one hour documentary about Paul Henning that features the man himself in vintage interviews, along with new insights from his daughter Linda (an actress who appears in Return of the Beverly Hillbillies), Max Baer Jr., Charles Lane and some of the producers and writers who worked on the original show. (Strangely, Donna Douglas is not among them.) They offer some wonderful anecdotes about Henning's triumph in creating three hit series in the 60s only to have CBS head honcho James Aubrey cancel these favorites in favor of appealing to urban audiences (which turned out to be a major misjudgment). Henning's talents extended to writing the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, which ingeniously tells the entire premise of the scenario in popular ditty that is still being sung today. Other bonus extras include an introduction by Linda Nelson, a genial lady who clearly adored her father; a wealth of original Kelloggs Corn Flakes ads featuring the cast, original TV promos for the Hillbillies and Green Acres and a promotional short for a never-produced wildlife series featuring Donna Douglas as Elly May.
If you love the show, skip the main event and head straight to those bonus extras....
Update: Astute reader Scott Shea points out that the people interviewed in the aforementioned documentary blame James Aubrey for canceling CBS' slate of hit rural shows. In fact, Aubrey was the man who championed them and was fired himself from the network in 1965. It was Fred Silverman who actually canceled these series.
Fifteen years after co-producing and directing the British Victorian-era war classic Zulu, Cy Endfield brought an epic prequel to the story to the screen with Zulu Dawn. Unlike the original film, however, this 1979 release suffered from a bungled and scatter shot North American release that ensured that very few Yanks or Canadians ever had the opportunity to see the film in theaters. Botched release notwithstanding, the movie is in many ways as good as its predecessor, even if the screenplay falls short on presenting the main characters in a fully developed way. The story pertains to the greatest British military defeat of its era as the Victorian penchant for colonialism extended into South Africa. Initially the indigenous Zulu tribes had a cordial relationship with the British, but a foolish change in political strategy saw increasing incursions onto Zulu territory. The Zulu king went to great lengths to avoid confrontation until it became obvious that the local British officials were intent on taking their land by military force. The British expeditionary force led by Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole) is well-armed with the latest weaponry and feels completely confident about a quick victory over the tribesmen, who are largely relegated to using primitive weapons. Like his American contemporary, General Custer, Chelmsford is an egotist with an overblown sense of self-confidence. He makes Custer's mistake of dividing his army into smaller units, spaced far apart. When the Zulu warriors mount a massive, surprise attack in what became known as the Battle of Isandlwana, the British are quickly overwhelmed. Like the original film, Zulu Dawn treats the native tribesmen with full respect and the script is clearly sympathetic to their cause. The British soldiers are depicted as courageous and gallant, but their superiors are generally seen as pompous snobs. A notable exception is the true life character of Col. Dumford (Burt Lancaster), a maverick Irishman who leads a contingent of African troops fighting with the British. Dumford tries to convince Chelmsford that his military strategies are flawed but his pleas fall on deaf ears. By the time Chelmsford and his reinforcements arrive at the battlefield, they find a seemingly endless plain of thousands of dead bodies, as only a handful of British troops managed to escape.
Zulu Dawn is a genuine epic with first rate production values with a sterling cast that includes such prominent actors as Simon Ward, Anna Calder-Marshall, John Mills, Denholm Elliott, Nigel Davenport and Bob Hoskins. The latter half of the film is devoted entirely to the battle sequences and they are stunningly staged and photographed, with Elmer Bernstein providing the stirring score. The movie is very well directed by Douglas Hickox, who is primarily remembered for Theatre of Blood and John Wayne's Brannigan. However, one must acknowledge that on a film of this scale, much of the credit must go to the second unit team as well.
Original British quad poster
Severin Films, which recently released a terrific special edition of another great '70s British war flick The Wild Geese (click here for review), has presented Zulu Dawn as a special edition Blu-ray/DVD dual package. The quality is outstanding on the Blu-ray but I'm always even more impressed by Severin's bonus extras. In this case, they include a fascinating history of the Zulu conflicts with scholar and author Ian Knight, who talks seemingly endlessly about every facet of the battle. The word "endlessly" here is meant as a compliment. Although I consider myself a military history buff, Knight's segment is like attending a master class and I realized how little I actually knew of the events depicted in the film. Knight explains that, although the Zulus won the battle, they suffered tremendous losses in the process and their victory was short-lived, as Lord Chelmsford ultimately sent their king into exile. The Severin crew also flew Knight to the actual battle locations in South Africa and it's truly amazing to see how untouched they remain to this day. (Crudely constructed above--ground grave sites for the soldiers still dot the battlefield.) There are also raw footage outtakes and some deleted scenes including several variations of Bob Hoskin's character's death. Another interesting segment features an extensive interview with historical and military consultant to the film, Midge Carter. Carter was an unemployed Brit with an in-depth knowledge of the film who just phoned the production company and ended up getting hired to ensure accuracy. Carter makes for an engaging interview, telling interesting tales about how he prevented historical inaccuracies from being included in the film. He also trashes director Hickox as a snobby elitist with a less-than-impressive work ethic. He also shares his scrapbook of on-set photos which had been autographed by every member of the cast. Severin interviews are always excellent to watch, thanks to producer David Gregory and Carl Daft's determination to let them go on as long as necessary and not worry about the length of the pieces. I only wish this was the case with some of the documentaries I produced for major studios, where there was always a bizarre determination to trim everything to the bone. Severin also doesn't indulge in gimmicky special effects or camera work. They simply turn on the camera and let the subject talk. Not fancy in terms of technique, but a wonderful throwback to how interviews used to be presented. Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer included in the set.
Chances are you haven't seen Zulu Dawn. You're in for a real treat with this superb presentation of an excellent film.
Apprehensive Films have released another DVD comprised of vintage public service shorts, this time compiled as a triple feature relating to the "horrors" of marijuana smoking. Titled 420 Triple Feature: Contact High, the shorts are uniformly amusing, as most vintage PSA-related films of the era now prove to be. The Terrible Truth is a color 1951 production in which a seemingly ancient judge (all adults in these films tend to look like Ma or Pa Kettle) seeks out a teenager who is representative of someone whose life was dramatically harmed by smoking weed. He is invited to the house of a prissy, goody two-shoes teenage girl who is in the process of recovering from a horrendous experience. Seems she was lured into getting involved with an older man, who seduced her through providing her with her first joint. A common theme throughout these films is that marijuana is instantly addictive and leads to a heroin-like dependency that drives users to sell their bodies and souls in order to get a "fix". Here, our unfortunate teen ends up married to the pot "pusher". When he is busted by police, she turns pusher herself in order to feed her habit. She survives a near-death experience in jail and now is determined to get her life back on track. The Devil's Harvest (1942) is the most unintentionally hilarious of the three features. It follows the tried and true formula of an innocent high school girl who is corrupted by a pot pusher. In this case, organized crime is involved and gangsters force the elderly owner of a hot dog stand to use it as a front to sell marijuana to high school kids. At a raucous teen party, that looks like it takes place in a leftover set from an Our Gang comedy, drug-crazed kids get into a brawl that results in someone's death. (The fight scenes in this film are especially funny since the punches don't come remotely close to connecting with the intended targets.) A teenage girl agrees to work undercover as a nightclub dancer (!) to help police crack the drug ring. It's amusing to see how, even in these public service films, producers try to sandwich in some entertainment value, thus we are treated to a completely superfluous dance number prior to the police crack down. The acting has to be seen to be disbelieved. Suffice it to say, you are guaranteed to witness the worst performances in screen history; no small feat. In the third and last film, The Devil's Weed (1949),(not be confused with the aforementioned Devil's Harvest), a virginal twenty-something young woman slaves away as a show girl in order to pay for her brother's college tuition. She soon gets lured to a pot party run by a local pusher and woman abuser. As with the previous films, the movie implies that pot is a highly addictive substance. Within seconds of taking her first puff, our heroine (pardon the pun) is climbing in the sac with the pusher. (The films all have a salient angle to them, implying that there is a direct correlation between smoking pot and losing your virginity. There is also an occasional political component with one of the shorts blatantly stating that marijuana is a tool of "the Reds" to gain world domination!). This film is longer...almost a full hour and boasts much better production values as well as "name" actors (Lyle Talbot as a police inspector and young Jack Elam as a gangland punk). The acting may still be laughable, but compared to the other two movies in this collection, the performances might seem as impressive as those in The Lion in Winter. There's plenty of sexually-oriented banter and plenty of retro glamor shots of the showgirls in their dressing rooms. This production is far more competently directed and Lila Leeds as the scandalized young woman tries hard and gives a passably competent performance.
The shorts would make the perfect compliment to a film festival topped off by Reefer Madness. The only problem is that, if you aren't currently smoking pot, these anti-drug short films might well encourage you to pick up the habit.
To order from Amazon click here ( to be released March 26)
What would happen if Travis Bickle’s cringe-inducing
date from “Taxi Driver” was stretched out over an entire weekend in the North
of Italy? Thanks to “The Visitor” (“La Visita”, 1963), we have our answer.
Pina (Sandra Milo) is an independent businesswoman
living in rural Italy. But she’s unwed and approaching 40-years-old, and
longing for a change in her life. She places a personal ad in the newspaper
(readers under 40: think Match.com, but with ink, paper and more desperation)
stating her desire to find a man and marry. Of the potential suitors who reply,
Adolfo di Palma (François Périer), an older bookseller in
Rome, seems the most promising. The story begins as he arrives in northern
Italy to meet Pina in person.
Many have witnessed those godawful first dates in which
every subtle hint goes unread and signs are horribly misinterpreted. Adolfo, it
is safe to say, is the undisputed champion of these first-date nightmares. After
the train he arrives on pulls safely out of the station, the real train wreck
unfolds slowly. Adolfo drinks too much grappa, allows his eyes to wander to a
16-year-old neighbor, loudly proclaims how much he detests Pina’s surroundings
and is a cheap date in every sense of the word.
As Pina grasps at straws to salvage the budding
relationship, Adolfo clumsily grasps at just about everything else. Credit
director Antonio Petrangeli with turning what could be nothing short of a
cringefest into a compelling film that is at once funny and pathetic,
mysterious and revealing. The possible couple are not stock characters who are
aging and lonely, searching for love against all odds. We see their regrets and
secrets in flashbacks and a surprise confrontation toward the end. And it’s in
the final act that the film hits its stride, as Adolfo and Pina finally say
what they’ve been politely skirting around throughout the visit.
tale of regret and redemption is filled with surprising amounts of both heart
and laughs, making it a compelling watch from the early exposition to the
The film has been released on DVD from the Raro Video label and is presented as a special edition with a wealth of extras including an interview with director Ettore Scola, who discusses Pietrangeli's work; an interview with Piertrangeli's son Paolo (who is a director, too) and an interview with the film's composer Armando Trovajoli. There is also a 16 page illustrated booklet that provides analysis of the film as well as vintage interview comments from the director. In all, an impressive package for a worthy film.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
Paramount has released two major John Wayne titles as DVD special editions. The releases were tied in with the studio's Centennial line of classics. In fact, El Dorado probably doesn't qualify as a classic, as it represents Howard Hawks' virtual remake of his 1959 film Rio Bravo (which is a genuine classic.) Regarded as a good, run-of-the-mill Western when released in 1967, the film has grown in stature as film scholars grapple with the notion that there simply aren't artists around today as interesting as Wayne, Hawks and Robert Mitchum, the other lead. The film showcases a fine supporting cast including James Caan in one of his first major roles, Charlene Holt, Michele Carey, Ed Asner and old reliable character actors Paul Fix and Arthur Hunnicutt playing a role that seems tailor-made for Walter Brennan. The plot is virtually identical to that of the previous film: a disparate group of heroes finds themselves holding an important prisoner and fending off a virtual army of gunslingers intent on freeing him. If Hawks was unapologetic about shamelessly plagiarizing another film, at least he was stealing from himself. (He would do yet another loose remake of the same story with Rio Lobo in 1970). Still, warmed-over Hawks is better than almost anything being made today, and El Dorado is a joy to watch. The banter between Wayne and Mitchum is terrific, the script has some genuinely funny moments and the action sequences are excellently staged.
Paramount's 2 DVD edition contains a wealth of great extras including:
audio commentary tracks by Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel, Ed Asner and Todd McCarthy
seven short featurettes each pertaining to a different aspect of the film's production
an interview with Paramount head honcho A.C. Lyles, who ran the studio when the movie was made
a vintage production short that showcases Western art sculptor Olaf Wieghorst, who plays a small, amusing role in the film
the original trailer and lobby card and production stills gallery
(Read an exclusive interview with James Caan about the making of the film in Cinema Retro issue #14)
Produced by Alexandre Poncet, Co-produced by Tony Dalton
Featuring Ray Harryhausen, James Cameron, Terry
Gilliam, John Landis, Nick Park, Steven Spielberg, Peter
Jackson, Tim Burton, Joe Dante, Guillermo Del Toro
Release date: On DVD and Blu-ray from 11th March 2013
Running time: 97 mins (film),
“I think all of us who
are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now, all feel
that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution
to the collective dreamscape we wouldn’t be who we are.” James Cameron
remarkable career of the movie industry’s most admired and influential
special-effects auteur, the legendary Ray Harryhausen, is the subject of Ray
Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. Described as “A continual delight”
(The Observer), “the stop-motion maestro gets the respect he deserves” (Daily
Express) in this definitive and critically acclaimed documentary coming to DVD
and Blu-ray on 4th March 2013,
featuring an extensive range of special features.
no doubt as to Harryhausen’s seminal influence on modern-day special effects,
the documentary features enlightening and entertaining interviews with the man
himself,Randy Cook, Peter Jackson,
Nick Park, Phil Tippet, Terry Gilliam,
Dennis Muren, John Landis, Guillermo Del
Toro, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and many more. These
filmmakers pay tribute to the father of Stop Motion animation and films such as
‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’, ‘It
Came From Beneath The Sea’, ‘The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad’, ‘Mysterious
Island’, ‘Jason And The Argonauts’ and ‘The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad’ – the
films that enthralled them as children and
inspired them to become filmmakers
in their own right.
The interviews are combined with archival
footage and contemporary clips plus the added delight of behind-the-scenes
footage, stills and original drawings with recently discovered unseen takes of
tests and experiments. The filmmakers were granted
unprecedented access to film all aspects of The Ray Harryhausen Collection
including models, artwork and miniatures as well as Ray's private study, where
he designed most of his creations, and his workshop where he built them.
This story of how a hobby became a profession,
from Ray’s first childhood experiments with dinosaurs, to the ground-breaking
techniques he developed to intricately interweave Stop Motion animation with
live action and the birth of Dynamation is essential
viewing for any fan of science-fiction, fantasy and adventure filmmaking.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan
(Arrow Films) is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 4th March 2013.
SPECIAL FEATURES INCLUDE: Audio Commentary with Gilles Penso, Alexandre
Poncet, Tony Dalton and Tim Nicholson; Featurette "A Treasure Trove";
Q&A at the Cinémathèque française; ‘A Chat With...Edgar Wright, Peter Lord,
Rick Baker, Simon Pegg; Interview Outtakes from Colin Arthur, Dennis Muren,
Greg Broadmore, Joe Dante, John Lasseter, Ken Ralston, Martine Beswick &
Caroline Munro, Nick Park, Phil Tippett, Randy Cook, Steve Johnson, Vanessa
Harryhausen; 8 Deleted Scenes; Special Effects Titan Trailer; On the Set of The
7th Voyage of Sinbad; A Message to Ray; Trailer collection : Mighty Joe Young,
The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms, It Came from beneath the sea, 20 Million Miles
to Earth, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds
of Gulliver, Mysterious Island & Jason and the Argonauts.
Actors and directors have a long tradition of trying to pass off exotic vacations as legitimate film making. Sometimes the cynical gambit pays unexpected dividends such as the Rat Pack's decision to shoot Oceans Eleven in between their nightly gigs on stage in the Sands hotel and casino in Las Vegas. They somehow turned out a good movie in between all the drinking, screwing and gambling. John Ford rounded up his stock company and headed to Hawaii for Donovan's Reef, but even with John Wayne on board, Paramount balked at the reed-thin script and old Pappy ended up having to front some of the production costs himself. In 1990, director Michael Winner teamed two of the wittiest and most likable stars- Michael Caine and Roger Moore- for what would appear to be a "no lose" proposition: casting them in an espionage comedy. Winner was well past his sell date as a director by then and ended up reinventing himself as a grouchy political pundit and much-feared restaurant critic. Still, how could he lose by teaming Harry Palmer and James Bond? It's a rhetorical question because the resulting film, Bullseye, was considered almost unreleasable. It's one of the least-seen movies of Caine and Moore's careers and with good reason. The ridiculous plot finds the two charismatic actors cast as two low-grade London con men who become embroiled in a plot to impersonate two renegade nuclear scientists who plan to sell top secrets to dangerous foreign powers. The silliest aspect of the film is that the scientists just happen to be physically identical to the con men. Moore and Caine are subjected to a series of increasingly weird scenarios that see them running about like the Keystone Cops as any shred of sensibility in the script is tossed out the window. They are joined by B movie mainstay of the era Sally Kirkland and Moore's daughter Deborah (billed here as "Deborah Barrymore") but not even the resurrection of Marilyn Monroe's sex appeal could salvage this cinematic train wreck. Winner seems to be directing as an afterthought as he indulges in some gorgeous locations in Scotland where the on-screen antics become so confusing that you literally have no idea whether you are observing the con men or the scientists. Winner films the final scene in an exotic island location which is quite obviously an indication of his ability to actually fly everyone there simply to shoot a few seconds of inconsequential footage. Winner wrote the non-screenplay with another otherwise talented person, the great lyricist and songwriter Leslie Bricusse. The only consolation they must have had is that they had a hell of a time on location and no one saw the movie anyway.
MGM has released Bullseye as a burn-to-order title but only Moore and Caine purists will want to add it to their collections as it fails so miserably that it doesn't even attain "guilty pleasure" status. Winner should have been drawn and quartered for squandering this one time on-screen teaming of two great stars. Moore once told me he and Caine laughingly refer to Bullseye as "Our Ishtar." Well, let's not go that far...at least Bullseye didn't cost a fortune, though with Winner's taste for on-set catering of exotic food and drink, maybe the financial losses did exceed that legendary debacle.
British/Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton had been frustrated by the fact that his great endeavors to make history always were upstaged by his contemporaries. Shackleton was respected for his dignity and courage but it seemed as though his dream of accomplishing one towering, historic achievement in the field of exploration would elude him. In 1914, with the great years of exploration rapidly coming to an end in a world whose boundaries were becoming more finite by the day, Shackleton set out for his last, ambitious grasp of for the gold ring with an expedition that would attempt to be the first to cross the continent of Antarctica by sea. Shackleton had amassed a first-rate crew of seasoned men who were up for the challenge of making such an arduous and long journey. He promised only low wages, immense pain and ceaseless work- with the only reward being possible glory if the mission succeeded. Shackleton's sturdy wooden vessel was appropriately named the Endurance, though the significance of that name would not be known until later. Just one day short of making his desired landfall, the ship became hopelessly mired in ice. Shackleton, who was known for his ability to command and for putting the welfare of his men before the mission, announced the ship would be stuck until the spring thaw, which was months away. The ship had ample supply of food and clothing, but inevitably the encroaching ice ultimately destroyed the vessel by crushing and sinking it. Shackleton and his men secured most of the necessary provisions, but had to make a camp on the ice. In fact, they were not even on solid land. They were castaways on a humongous island made of ice and snow that was drifting slowly but surely away from the mainland. After months of enduring this harsh life, Shackleton ordered the men to take lifeboats on an arduous journey to actual land-the remote Elephant Island. They ended up on one of the most remote places on the planet, battered night and day by ceaseless, freezing winds. Finally, Shackleton and a handful of men made the daring choice to take a lifeboat to the nearest place where they knew there would be help- South Georgia, which required a grueling, seemingly impossible crossing across a savage sea. To get there, Shackleton and his men had to endure endless rain and ice storms. There was never a moment when they were not completely saturated and in danger of dying from frostbite. Incredibly, Shackleton and his men completed the 800 mile journey only to discover they were on the opposite end of the island, as far from the encampment of potential rescuers as one could get. Nevertheless, Shackleton and a few men set out across snow covered mountain ranges that were deemed so impassable that no man had ever attempted to cross them before. To the amazement of everyone, Shackleton and his men made it- but he immediately had to plan how to rescue the men he had left behind. For months, inclement weather resulted in the rescue attempts being thwarted until finally, four months after he left for help, Shackleton and a rescue ship finally saved the long-suffering crew. Not one man had died. Shackleton did not achieve his initial goal, but his seamanship ranked with that of Captain Bligh, who similarly made a seemingly impossible journey in a rowboat under harsh conditions following the mutiny aboard the Bounty. Shackleton returned home to find England a much different place and his achievement somewhat under-valued due to the public's preoccupation with Britain's entry into the first World War.
Sony has released the remarkable documentary The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, based Caroline Alexander's acclaimed book that explored the expedition in fascinating detail. The film features excellent narration by Liam Neeson. This is a big budget production produced and directed by George Butler, who takes his crew to the exact locations Shackleton visited. He finds them as harsh and unwelcoming as his predecessor. In fact, in the course of the documentary (which features remarkable cinematography), Butler realizes that even with the benefit of modern technology, they can't replicate certain feats that the crew of the Endurance did. What makes the documentary even more compelling is that it features extensive film footage of most of the trials and tribulations endured by the Endurance crew. Despite their dilemma, they had the presence of mind to use the relatively new format of movie making to take incredible footage of life on the ice, including the ultimate destruction of the Endurance. Additionally, the crew also took many photos that they somehow managed to develop under brutal conditions. These photographic elements, combined with the vintage and new footage, make for one of the most compelling documentaries you will ever see.
Curiously, although this is a special edition burn-to-order DVD, Sony's packaging makes no mention of the wealth of bonus extras including a commentary track by George Butler, who speaks in such a low-comforting voice, you might drift off and have to play the track again. Nevertheless, it's very informative and enlightening. There are also extras that show the sons, daughters and other descendents of the crew members who discuss the legacy of the Endurance heroes at length. They also attend a 1999 museum exhibition of artifacts from the ordeal that opened in New York City.
Cinema Retro welcomes its latest contributor, David P. King, who will be reviewing avant garde DVDS.
By David P. King
When American audiences first saw “Plot of Fear” (“E
Tanta Paura”), they were likely surprised and a bit confused: surprised because
the film is a suspenseful thriller of a higher quality than may be expected,
and confused because the film was first released in English under the title
“Bloody Peanuts” and contains a decent amount of blood, but a conspicuous
absence of peanuts.
Italian Director Paolo Cavara’s 1976 thriller unfolds with
a mystery killer targeting guests of a wild party where a prostitute had
accidentally died years earlier.
Through a series of clues and cinematic flashbacks,
Inspector Lomenzo (Michele Placido) begins to unravel who the killer is and why
the targets have been chosen.
Along the way, he falls for the stunning model Jeanne
(Corinne Clery), one of the guests of the fateful party.
Cinephiles will revel in seeing a pair of American
character actors, Tom Skerritt and Eli Wallach in supporting roles.
Cavara spawned an entire genre of documentaries that
titillated and shocked viewers with tales of exotic subcultures more than they
informed with his 1962 film “A Dog’s World” (“Mondo Cane”). These “mondo”
documentaries were often staged, exaggerated and fictional.
Cavara’s mondo influences can certainly be seen here:
The inspector and his girlfriend talk openly of swinging, lesbian models make
out during a photo shoot and guests of a secret society of animal lovers watch
a surreal pornographic short cartoon (by Italian erotic cartoonist Gibba) with
their pet chimp during a weekend orgy.
But at its heart, “Plot of Fear” is a thriller complete
with more twists and surprises than pure shock value. Its cinematography is
skilled, and it looks more like a major motion picture release than low-budget
The remastered print for the Raro Video DVD is
flawless. Bonus features include insightful commentary by Cavara’s son and
interviews with the screenwriter Enrico Oldoini and Placido on the film’s
While the ultimate reveal may be less than satisfactory
and the film is prone to the quirks of the time period (women’s tops come off
frequently with little in the way of exposition or reason), “Plot of Fear”
manages to toe the line between shock, shlock and suspense masterfully, and is
a pleasant addition to any collection of Italian films.
MR. LUCKY: THE COMPLETE SERIES is now available for the first time
ever as a 4-DVD box set from Timeless Media Group… all 34 episodes, with a
running time of about 840 minutes. MR. LUCKY– created by writer/director Blake
Edwards (PETER GUNN) – ran for only one season (from 1959 to 1960), even though
it was a hit with viewers.
This adventure/crime drama is a sort of PETER GUNN Lite, featuring
a lush, organ-powered theme song by Henry Mancini (a bonus CD of MR. LUCKY’s soundtrack
is included in the set), an assortment of shady characters aboard a floating
casino, and competent acting by series regulars John Vivyan (as suave
professional gambler Mr. Lucky), Ross Martin (as his sidekick and business
partner Andamo), Pippa Scott (as Mr. Lucky’s girlfriend Maggie Shank-Rutherford)
and Tom Brown (as Lieutenant Rovacs, Mr. Lucky’s cop buddy).
Edwards directed and co-wrote the first episode of MR. LUCKY, and
the credits of the first 18 episodes include “Entire production supervised by
Blake Edwards.” Jack Arnold (director of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON,
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE) produced the show
and directed 15 episodes. The end credits include “Series based on an original
story: Bundles for Freedom by Milton
Holmes,” which was published in Cosmopolitan
in June 1942. This story was also the basis of the 1943 motion picture MR.
LUCKY, starring Cary Grant as a gambling-ship owner out to fleece a beautiful
society woman (Laraine Day), but who falls in love with her instead. The film
and television series have little in common, except for the title and the suave
nature of the leading man.
According to a March 1942 news item in The Hollywood Reporter, RKO bought Holmes’ story at the request of
Cary Grant, who wanted to star in it. In a 1969 Hollywood Reporter news item, Holmes claimed that his story was
inspired by Edward G. Nealis, the owner of the Clover Club on the Sunset Strip,
a venue for drinking and illegal gambling in the early 1930s. In 1936, Nealis
rigged a one-night gambling benefit at the Beverly Hills Hotel to raise $40,000
for a church.
In the series opener, Mr. Lucky and Andamo are managing a
successful casino in Andamo’s island homeland of Chobolbo. After a brush with
the country’s corrupt El Presidente (Nehemiah Persoff), they lose everything
when Andamo is discovered running guns to the rebels in Mr. Lucky’s yacht Fortuna and they must escape the island in
a small boat with only the shirts on their backs. The adventurers’ fortunes
take a turn for the better when Mr. Lucky (who is gifted with extraordinary luck) wins enough money gambling to
buy another yacht, which he christens Fortuna
II and turns into a high-class gambling casino, anchored in international
waters off the California coast, where U.S anti-gambling laws don’t apply. The
casino attracts a colorful parade of characters, including very seductive
women, criminals on the run, desperate characters hiding from criminals or the
law, kidnappers, hijackers, smugglers, jewel thieves, money-launderers, and victims
of blackmail who turn to Mr. Lucky for help. Mr. Lucky and Andamo are often
caught in dangerous situations, betting on whether or not they’ll survive. (Oddly
enough, Mr. Lucky has no first name and Andamo has no last name.)
Sounds like fun, except the plots are shopworn and the scripts not
terribly well written. Cary Grant clone Vivyan is dashing but lacks charm. Eventually,
Andamo’s quips, witticisms and bon mots
(delivered in a thick Spanish accent) become more annoying than amusing. As for
MR. LUCKY’S unlucky fate, the show’s sponsors (Lever Brothers and Life
Cigarettes) didn’t want their brands associated with gambling, and insisted
that the Fortuna II become a tony private
club, which killed whatever “edge” the show might have had. Even so, the
sponsors bailed and no new sponsors would bankroll Season Two, so (incredibly) this
hit series was cancelled. Such a scenario is unimaginable today. Martin and
Scott went on to flourishing careers, but handsome John Vivyan found little
work after his “big break.” One of Vivyan’s last jobs before his death in 1983 was
a walk-on in an episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI.
The other directors on the show are Boris Sagal, Lamont Johnson, Jerry
Hopper and Alan Crosland Jr. Among the many guest stars are Stanley Adams, Norman
Alden, R.G. Armstrong, Barbara Bain, Billy Barty, Henry Beckman, Mari Blanchard,
Walter Burke, Richard Chamberlain, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Ted de Corsia, Cyril
Delevanti, Brad Dexter, Jack Elam, Don Gordon, Frank Gorshin, Robert H. Harris,
Alan Hewitt, Ted Knight, Berry Kroeger, Joi Lansing, Len Lesser (Uncle Leo on Seinfeld), John Marley, Gavin MacLeod, Yvette
Mimieux, Jack Nicholson (!), Edward C. Platt, Herbert Rudley, Doris Singleton, Jeremy
Slate, William Smith, Warren Stevens, Barbara Stuart, Nita Talbot, Lee Van
Cleef, Virginia Vincent, David White, Peter Whitney, Grant Williams and Will
Image quality on the 4-pack DVD varies from fair to very good.
Audio quality is excellent throughout.
to order MR. LUCKY: THE COMPLETE SERIES.
The Blu-ray release by Twilight Time (limited edition of 3,000) of the 1962 thriller Experiment in Terror serves as a reminder that, with the success of the Pink Panther franchise, director Blake Edwards left behind some solid credentials outside of the comedy genre. After the Pink Panther films took the world by storm, Edwards stuck with lightweight, amusing subject matters, but in doing so, often grabbed at low-hanging fruit. (Most of the Panther films have not aged nearly as well as we might think they have.) Edwards was a rising young director in '62, coming off the success of Breakfast at Tiffanys. The release of Days of Wine and Roses that year proved Edwards could direct drama as well as comedy, but with the success of the Panthers, Edwards only rarely dabbled in non-comedic genres. Curiously, in the early 1970s he did three dramas back-to-back: Wild Rovers, The Carey Treatment and The Tamarind Seed, then inexplicably never ventured outside of comedy again. Experiment in Terror is one of Edwards' least-heralded but most interesting non-comedies. The story finds Lee Remick as Kelly Sherwood, a beautiful young woman who leads a middle-class life, working as a teller in a San Francisco bank. She serves as guardian for her 16 year-old sister Toby (Stefanie Powers), who shares a house with her in the suburbs. Kelly's ordinary lifestyle comes to a shattering halt one evening when an unseen man grabs her from behind as she enters her garage. In a hushed but terrifying voice, he informs her that he is orchestrating a plan whereby she will steal $100,00 from her bank - or he will murder her. Although she is warned not to contact the police, she does precisely that- but her assailant seems to know her every move and physically terrorizes her. He also warns her that any other disregard for his instructions will result in her sister's death as well. Nevertheless, Kelly makes contact with San Francisco detective John Ripley (Glenn Ford), who advises her that she will be under constant surveillance and that she should pretend to comply with her assailant's instructions. All the while, the police search frantically for clues to the man's identity. As the story progresses, police efforts go awry, leaving Kelly and Toby at the mercy of the psychopath, who they learn is named 'Red' Lynch (Ross Martin)- a man who has killed previously. Lynch manages to outmaneuver police and kidnap Toby, thus forcing Kelly to go along with the plot to steal the money. The big payoff sequence comes when she is to deliver it to Candlestick Park baseball stadium where Lynch intends to get the stolen funds from her amidst the crowds attending the game.
What is refreshing about Experiment in Terror is the screenplay by "The Gordons" (Mildred and Gordon), the bizarrely credited team who had written the best-selling novel upon which the film is based. There are no super hero types in the story- just everyday people who find themselves thrust into a terrifying scenario. The police are dedicated, but make mistakes. Kelly and her sister try to be brave but are clearly scared out of their minds, as any normal person would be. Remick and Powers give very fine performances, as does Ford, whose low-key style has been disparaged in some quarters. However, his refusal to steal scenes makes his character even more convincing. Ford's talent was in underplaying his roles and this is the perfect example. The legitimate scene-stealer is Ross Martin as Lynch, a performance so powerful that it was actually utilized as a marketing gimmick. His name never doesn't appear in the opening credits or on the poster. However, director Edwards does reward him with the sole on screen credit in the final frames of the film. Martin's Lynch is a fascinating villain. He's clearly an ingenious criminal, staying one step ahead of police at every turn. Although he resorts to physical violence, he is pragmatic, promising Kelly a share of the loot if she cooperates in his scheme. Lynch is also a sexual predator and a man who thinks nothing of killing anyone who poses a threat to him. In the film's eeriest sequence, he stalks a female artist in her studio, which is strewn from floor to ceiling with mannequins, making for a particularly chilling atmosphere. Refreshingly, the screenplay doesn't make Lynch a one-dimensional character. When Ripley tracks down a woman who has been dating him, he finds she has an entirely different view of the man, as he has been inexplicably providing financial support for her hospitalized son.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray accentuates the gorgeous B&W cinematography by Philip Lathrop that grabs you from the opening sequence in which Kelly drives across the Bay Bridge. There is also a fine score by Edwards' frequent collaborator Henry Mancini that is presented on an isolated track. The extras include a selection of trailers and TV spots and an excellent booklet with notes by Julie Kirgo, who makes perceptive comparisons between this film and Cape Fear, which was released the same year. (Both movies center on how a stalker can destroy the lives of the innocent people he targets.) Experiment in Terror is highly recommended.
Impulse Films has released two vintage erotic titles, Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale and Same Time Every Year. The most surprising element of both titles is that they are hard-core porn, but they are being accorded mainstream status through an aggressive promotional campaign by the DVD label, which is a division of Synapse Films. What is enjoyable about the Synapse catalog is the sheer diversity of their releases, ranging from classic and cult horror films to the notorious Nikkatsu Japanese soft-core titles (which are accorded Citizen Kane-like treatment, complete with extensive liner notes and poster reproductions.). These new titles don't get the same tender, loving care, but they are accorded "respectable" status nonetheless.
Serena: An Adult Fairy Tale- is a 1980 spin on the Cinderella legend, albeit of a kind that would have dear old Walt Disney spinning in his grave. Serena (played by an actress known as Serena), is a teenage sexpot who is sold into modern slavery by an evil stepfather. In her new "home", she is abused both sexually and psychologically. In between doing back-breaking housework, Serena is routinely called upon to satisfy her new mistress and her other female household guests. She's also used for sexual pleasure by a string of male visitors to the house. There isn't a social message being made here about the horrors of modern sex slavery, as Serena seems even more perturbed when she is left out of the action. The razor-thin "plot" finds the females of the house preparing for a big party for some hunky males (in this case, "grand ball" takes on an entirely different meaning.) Serena has been banished to her room as the other girls enjoy the orgy. She is visited by an equally sexy female supernatural presence who grants her wish to be able to attend the festivities. Presto! Serena suddenly appears at the party and predictably steals all the attention away from the egotistical women who have long mistreated her. Familiar faces from the era appear in the movie, including China Leigh and Jamie Gillis. Perhaps not coincidentally, the running time of the film is 69 minutes.
Same Time Every Year- was shot in 1981 and centers on an amusing scenario in which a group of male friends pretend each year that they must leave town for a business convention, leaving their wives back home. In fact, they are meeting their mistresses for wild sexual encounters. Meanwhile, the not-so-desperate housewives are all too happy to go along with the scenario, as it gives them an opportunity to get it on with a string of male and female lovers of their own. That's pretty much it. As with Serena, the movie was remastered from original 35mm film elements. (The opening and end titles show a lot of wear, but we have to remember these were not preserved in the Library of Congress) and, for the most part, quality is very good. The cast in this one includes the omnipresent China Leigh, Loni Sanders, Herschel Savage, Holly McCall and an impossibly svelte Ron Jeremy, before he indulged in the Marlon Brando dietary plan. There is also a credit for Boo, The Wonder Horse, but don't panic- the action never gets that kinky.
Both films are "directed" (so to speak) by one Fred J. Lincoln, whose apparent "legit" claim to fame is having appeared in Wes Craven's original Last House on the Left. A look at his IMDB credits shows Mr. Lincoln must be the hardest working man in the porn industry, having cranked out many dozens of titles right up through today, including some with some name recognition such as Dallas Does Debbie the infamous 1970s flick The Defiance of Good that preceded the Traci Lords scandal when it was revealed that the movie's female lead, Jean Jennings, was under age.
I suppose that one's ability to wax nostalgic about porn movies very much depends upon your receptiveness to the genre itself, as well as the era in which you grew up. Back in the pre-home video day, it was considered an upscale experience when a porn film was shot in 35mm. These "expensive" productions drew large audiences and sometimes played for years in the same theater. The quality still exceeds today's boring adult fare in the sense that, at least some degree of film making skill was required behind the camera. There are also some hints of production values, with occasional glimpses of opulent homes and settings. Probably the biggest difference between then and now is that the actors actually resembled real people in those days. There's an abundance of hair and sweat, but the cast members actually look real people, as opposed to the Botox and silicone-injected, indistinguishable robots who populate today's boring erotic videos.
There are no extras on the DVDs, which is too bad because it would be interesting to hear Fred J. Lincoln's insights on how the porn business has changed over the decades. Nevertheless, if you're not offended by these types of things, the Impulse releases will bring back some good (and naughty) memories.
Despite its exploitive title, EDDIE: THE SLEEPWALKING
CANNIBAL (2012) is an old-school horror/comedy, a 21st century
variation on Roger Corman’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959), with its odd mix of
ghoulish fun and satiric jabs at the artistic community and the creative
Lars, a famous artist from Denmark (Thure Lindhardt) suffers from “painter’s block” and signs
on as a teacher at a small art school in the backwoods of Canada. Lars meets
Eddie (Dylan Scott Smith), a traumatized mute – a simpleton, really – who is
allowed to attend classes and finger-paint because his aunt is a wealthy patron
of the school. When the aunt dies, Lars is coaxed into sharing quarters with
the silent, hulking but seemingly harmless Eddie, keeping an eye on him for the
good of the school, which will continue to receive financial support from the
aunt’s estate. This display of altruism is also Lars’ way of impressing a
pretty colleague, sculpture teacher Lesley (Georgina Reilly).
But Eddie is still troubled, and at night, in a
somnambulistic state, ventures out into the snow and ice clad only in his
underwear and (seemingly impervious to hypothermia) lurches about like a
zombie, ripping apart and devouring small animals. Lars witnesses the aftermath
of this carnage and is inspired by the blood and guts to paint his first
masterpiece in a decade. To the strains of David Burns’ symphonic score, Lars
is transported into a hallucinogenic world where the addictive rush of painting
is all that matters.
While Lars develops a genuine bond of friendship with
Eddie, he begins to encourage the mute’s nighttime forays when the painter’s
block returns, justifying his Caligari-like control of Eddie’s nocturnal
activities because the gore stimulates his creative juices. Lars is no longer
tormented by the blank canvas as a result of Eddie’s strange sleepwalking
behavior. Eddie has, in a sense, become
The tension escalates when Lars has words with an
obnoxious neighbor (Peter Michael Dillon) whose barking dog keeps him awake at
night, and sends Eddie on a mission to eat the dachshund. But Eddie takes his
habit to a new level, chowing down on the dog and its master. Oblivious to the bloodbath, Lars immediately takes
paint brush to easel and produces another masterpiece. Soon, his dealer
(Stephen McHattie) shows up, sensing that Lars is entering a productive new
phase of unstifled creativity – and reassuring the artist that he does not
judge whatever means justify this end, pointing out that Lars’ last period of prolonged
productivity was sparked by a terrible car accident.
Overriding his genuine fondness for the childlike Eddie,
Lars continues to send him out at night, literally guiding the brawny sleepwalking
mute to fresh prey, justifying his actions because the victims are evil people
(racists, drunk drivers and the like). Lars – seemingly unaware that he is sinking
into a level of barbarism equally as profound as Eddie’s – attracts the
suspicions of the town cop (amusingly portrayed by the dour Paul Braunstein).
Eventually, Lars becomes as addicted to the rush of
painting as Eddie is to the taste of human flesh, and the blood flows ever more
freely until the film’s genuinely moving denouement, in which an injured Lars
paints his final masterpiece, helped by star-crossed lover Lesley.
A clever touch is that the audience never sees the
works of art that justify the horrific murders and dismemberments of man and
Director Boris Rodriguez – whose work I am completely
unfamiliar with – balances the humor and the horror perfectly, never allowing
his characters to mug for the camera. The humor is very understated, in
contrast to the viciousness of Eddie’s superhuman atrocities while
sleepwalking. Rodriguez also shoots his scenes in an elegant style, reminding
one of the balanced compositions of Stanley Kubrick. Hand-held camerawork is
kept to a minimum, restricted to Lars’ frenzied scenes of splattering paint
onto the canvas. And even these scenes have a certain elegance. At last, a
contemporary horror film with no “found footage” or reality television tropes!
Key to the success of this picture is the brilliant
acting of lead players Lindhardt (Into the Wild) and Smith (Immortals, 300) and the welcome presence of renowned character actor McHattie (Watchmen) in a small but vital role.
EDDIE: THE SLEEPWALKING CANNIBAL is a Canada-Denmark
coproduction from Mongrel Media, and easily the best film (horror or otherwise)
ever made in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. EDDIE does not strike one false
note. I strongly recommend you check it out.
The DVD is available in Canada only. Click here to buy from Amazon Canada.
The Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, which present contemporary and classic films at their unique restaurant/theaters, have delved into the DVD business- and retro movie lovers can thank their lucky stars. One of the most prominent of the Drafthouse releases is Wake in Fright, a 1971 Australian film classic by Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian born director who had never previously set foot Down Under prior to making this movie. Based on the novel by Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright is unknown to many film scholars who pride themselves on being acquainted with worthwhile, little-seen films. (I must shamefully admit that I fall into this category myself, having never even heard of the film prior to reviewing the Blu-ray release). Based on the title, I assumed this was a suspense thriller or a horror film. It is neither. In fact, it is virtually impossible to pigeon-hole this movie into a specific genre. Suffice it to say that is one of the most visually arresting and mesmerizing movies of the 1970s- one that will haunt you long after viewing it.
The film opens with a panoramic shot of a tiny one room schoolhouse set against the expanse of the Outback desert. We are introduced to John Grant (Gary Bond), a handsome young teacher who seems curiously out of place in this environment in his jacket and tie. Grant is trying to maintain the universal standards of school teachers but we soon see that he is frustrated at having been powerless in choosing his designated school district. Thus, he has been assigned to one of the most remote places imaginable, teaching a class that is so small that teenagers are compelled to share the room with first graders. As the story begins, Grant is bidding his students farewell as he eagerly anticipates a six-week school holiday. He longs to return to Sydney and the loving embrace of his attractive girlfriend, whose well-worn bathing suit photo adorns his wallet. En route home, however, Grant's train makes a fateful stop in a small city of Bundanyabba (known to the fiercely territorial locals as "The 'yabba"). Grant is initially bored at being stranded for 24 hours in this unattractive mining town where the residents are either openly hostile to strangers or overbearingly friendly. He becomes acquainted with the local constable, Jock Crawford (the wonderful Aussie character actor Chips Rafferty, in final, and perhaps, best performance.) Crawford is an eccentric but he takes Grant under his wing and escorts him to a cavernous bar where hoards of local men are carousing and drinking alcohol with almost superhuman abilities. Grant is at first repulsed, but he finds himself accepted by the locals since he is vouched for by Jock. Soon, he's pretty inebriated himself and he becomes fascinated with a game of chance that dozens of men are participating in. The simple premise involves a toss of a coin and you win or lose based on whether you bet heads or tails. The sheer emotion of the participants intoxicates Grant and he tries his hand. He soon wins a small fortune. Tempted by the fact that winning even more money will allow himself to be freed from his undesirable teaching position, he makes the fatal mistake of returning to the game and gambling one more round. Within seconds, the drunken Grant loses every penny he has. By the next morning, he can't afford a train ticket to continue to Sydney and has to rely on the kindness of strangers (in the words of Tennessee Williams) to find housing and food.
This is where the film becomes completely compelling, as Grant rapidly meets a succession of overbearing- and potentially dangerous new "friends". They include Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), a friendly but consistently drunken elderly man who introduces Grant to his mates: two obnoxious and crude musclemen, Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (Jack Thompson in his screen debut). He also discovers Tim's attractive daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay), who can hardly stand the deplorable life she leads in having to serve her sexist father and his misogynistic friends. She is drawn to Grant's sensitivity but his attempts to satisfy her repressed sexual desires go awry. He is next introduced to Tydon (Donald Pleasence in brilliant form), a one-time doctor who has lost his license because of alcoholism. He lives a threadbare existence, trading medical advice to townspeople in return for a spartan diet and all the booze he can handle. Before long, Grant is coerced into joining Tyson, Joe and Dick on a brutal hunt for kangaroos. The drunken Grant becomes as savage as his out of control companions and he reaches bottom when he willingly kills and tortures these lovable, harmless creatures for mere amusement. As the story progresses, Grant devolves even further and goes off an alcohol-fueled abyss that culminates in a most unexpected homosexual encounter.
Wake in Fright startled audiences in Australia when it was first shown, leading to some audience members screaming at the screens "That's not us!" in objection to the way the Outback dwellers were portrayed. In reality, there are no overt villains shown on screen. These are just hard-bitten people who live in an inhospitable part of the land where you have to be tough in order to survive. The film was an entry at Canne but had a limited release before fading into obscurity. It was virtually impossible to market. The Alamo Drafthouse Blu-ray does justice to the film's astonishing cinematography by Brian West, as well as the unique and atmospheric score by John Scott. Kotcheff's direction is letter-perfect right up through the final frame. Kotcheff is interviewed on the Blu-ray and he expresses gratitude for the team of film historians who searched the world in order to find the elements that have made the restoration of the movie possible. He also recalls how, when the film when was shown at Cannes, one young man sitting behind him kept gushing about his enthusiasm for the film. When Kotcheff asked who the young man was, the dismissive answer was that he was an unheard of new director named Martin Scorsese! The Blu-ray includes vintage interviews with Kotcheff at Cannes in 1971, audio commentary with Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley, an extensive interview with Kotcheff at a 2009 Canadian film event, a vintage TV obituary for Chips Rafferty, a documentary about the restoration of the movie, theatrical trailers and an absorbing 28 page collector's booklet.
Wake in Fright is now justly regarded as the first "adult" Australian movie. It instilled pride and confidence in a generation of Aussie filmmakers and its legacy lives on through their works. Kudos to Alamo Drafthouse for presenting this moody and haunting cinematic experience through this first-rate Blu-ray release.
Unless you've been living on another planet yourself, you're probably familiar with the premise of Mystery Science Theater, the legendary TV series that involves a stranded astronaut and two robot friends who are subjected to watching an endless array of bad movies. Each 90 minute episode involves showing a B movie as the trio toss out hilarious wise cracks at the expense of all involved in the making of these cinematic embarrassments. The latest boxed set release from Shout! Factory features three (relatively) upper crust duds and one of the more traditional entries, a low-budget sci-fi flick. Here is a break down of the 4-DVD set:
OPERATION KID BROTHER- Ironically, whoever holds the rights to this 1967 Italian spy movie could make a fortune by simply releasing it "as is" on DVD. However, the only pseudo-release comes through the Mystery Science Theater set. As with all the titles, the film is edited down dramatically to fit a 90 minute slot that also includes another mainstay of the show: comedy vignettes featuring the bizarre characters who are regulars on the series. Still, half a water-down Kid Brother is better than none at all and if you haven't seen this infamous travesty, you're in for a treat. The film was cobbled together during the height of the spy movie rage to cash in on the popularity of the James Bond films. Nothing unique about that. Seemingly every actor in the world sent word to their agents that they wanted to play a spy. The novelty behind this film is that the producers cast Neil Connery, brother of you-know-who, as a Scottish plastic surgeon with the power to hypnotize at will (don't ask!). Connery had no acting experience prior to finding himself in this rather lavish production that boasted exotic locations and an inspired supporting cast that included Bond regulars Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee as well as other high profile alumni from the series including Daniela Bianchi, Anthony Dawson and Adolfo Celi. The blatant attempt to exploit the Connery name is apparent by the fact that the catchy, guilty-pleasure title theme song is called O.K. Connery (it was composed by Ennio Morricone!). Additionally, Neil Connery plays a character creatively named Dr. Neil Connery. There are all sorts of cryptic references to the notion that he is the brother of 007, which of course doesn't stand up to scrutiny because 007's name is James Bond, not Sean Connery. Nevertheless, the funniest aspect of the movie is the most unintentional: the dubbing. It appears everyone but Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee are dubbed, including (inexplicably) Neil Connery himself. He's supposed to be Scotsman and is even seen wearing a kilt in one sequence, but is dubbed with a baritone American accent! The film is goofy fun throughout. I recently met Neil Connery in Scotland and he maintains a good sense of humor about the production, saying it was a pleasant experience even though he was appalled to find his voice had been dubbed. It's fine to have Kid Brother released as an MST 3000 edition, but let's hope there's a legit release in the works of the entire movie. The kitsch value alone would ensure brisk sales.
Kitten With a Whip- The inclusion of this mainstream entry as an MST 3000 edition is outside of the genres the series generally worked with, as related by series star and creator Mike Nelson, who explains the show generally concentrated on B horror and sci-fi flicks . However, the movie is so over-the-top bad that it merited inclusion in the show's Hall of Shame. Ann-Margret, then an up-and-coming star, had already had major success with State Fair, Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas. Good thing, too, because it's doubtful we would have heard much more from her had this guilty pleasure been the vehicle for her screen debut. The 1964 B&W film stars John Forsythe as David Stratton, a straight-laced, pillar of the community family man living in San Diego. He's being groomed by local politicians as a likely candidate for office and is expected to vie for the nomination in a forthcoming state senate race. With his wife and kids away on a vacation, Stratton becomes embroiled in a bizarre situation when he finds a scantily-clad, rain-soaked young woman named Jody literally sleeping in his bed, having broken into his house. Jody explains she was being abused in a home for teenaged girls and had to flee for her life. Stratton makes the mistake of trying to assist her, but soon realizes she is actually wanted for burning the home down and attempting to kill a matron there. He finds himself being set up in a blackmail scheme that would destroy his family life and political ambitions, with matters complicated by the fact that Jody will accuse him of rape, which is even more damaging because she is under-age. Defenseless, Stratton has no choice but to allow Jody and a trio of bizarre and potentially violent delinquents take over his house, wreaking physical and emotional damage. The whole enterprise goes hilariously off-the-charts when the gang ends up driving to Tijuana where Stratton coincidentally runs into virtually every possible person who he does not want to encounter, with the possible exception of The Three Stooges. In more skilled hands, the basic premise could have been an effective one, but director Douglas Hayes (who was a well-regarded screenwriter) encourages Ann-Margret and her young co-stars to go over-the-top at every possible opportunity. The string of coincidences, bad judgment calls and overall ineptness on the part of Stratton only emphasizes how incredibly frightening he would be in political office. Only Forsythe emerges relatively unscathed and the ironic end does pack a bit of a dramatic wallop but the film can generally be regarded as an embarrassment for all concerned and well worth the MST 3000 "tribute".
Revenge of the Creature- This 1955 monster flick is acknowledged as another off-beat entry for inclusion in the show, as it was produced by Universal and boasts relatively upscale production values. The sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon finds the titular monster captured and put on display in a Florida aquarium where he is gawked at by scientists and public alike. The fish-faced fiend ultimately breaks free and terrorizes the locals, including the prerequisite teens on Lover's Lane. The film is noted primarily for providing young Clint Eastwood in a bit role, but as these streamlined versions of the films are edited severely to make room for comedy sketches, I don't believe the Eastwood footage made it into this version, or I blinked and missed it. The film is goofy fun but nowhere near as enjoyable as those truly bad B movies turned out by other studios. John Agar is the hunky leading man and Lori Nelson is the sexy girl who the monster inevitably ends up carrying into the drink.
Robot Holocaust- This 1986 title is far more the norm for the MST 3000 crowd. A micro-budgeted howler about a post-apocalyptic world in which humans serve as slave laborers for the Dark One's power station. I'm not sure what the Dark One is, exactly, but he's apparently non-human and he's a humorless dude who arranges for gladiator-like fights to the death among the slaves. Into this mix comes a rebel from the outside world who attempts to stir up a revolution. There are the usual Star Wars-inspired robot clones, all of which look like someone you might see at a Halloween party. New York locations include Central Park, probably because it's a place where people who look like aliens from another world wouldn't draw much attention from passers-by. The film's 79-minute running time feels like that of Doctor Zhivago after you get past the first half-hour's worth of unintentional giggles but the performance of the "actress" who plays the villainess helps the climax attain a certain greatness in the annals of bad movies in that it is perhaps the worst performance ever committed to celluloid. For that reason alone, the entire set is worth adding to your library.
This release is packed with extras including interviews with the show's Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson and cast members Bill Corbett and J. Elvis Weinstein. An unexpected gem is the documentary Jack Arnold at Universal, a serious tribute to the director who brought to life some of the studio's most enduring monster movie classics. It's unusual to see such respect paid to a filmmaker in an MST 3000 release, but it's certainly warranted.There are also the usual cool mini-posters created by artist Steve Vance.
Remember that scene in Mel Brooks' The Producers when the first performance of Springtime for Hitler has just been performed for an opening night crowd on Broadway? The camera pans around the silent audience to show people sitting slack-jawed, mouths agape at the travesty they have just witnessed. I had a similar experience watching Sextette for the first time. Mind you, as a long time retro movie analyst, I was well-aware of the film's reputation as a notorious misfire. However, no criticism can quite prepare anyone for the experience of actually watching this bizarre spectacle unfold before your eyes. Scorpion Video has made that possible with a special edition DVD release of the 1978 musical comedy that was to be Mae West's second attempt to make a big screen comeback. (The first, the notorious 1970 bomb Myra Breckenridge, outraged her when she saw the final cut.) Sextette went into production in 1976, produced by "Briggs and Sullivan", a headed-for-oblivion duo whose pretentious billing perhaps unwittingly brings to mind circus masters Barnum and Bailey. The producers had acquired the rights to West's play Sextet, which apparently resulted in legal and censorship problems for the great screen diva way back when it was first presented. By the time it was dusted off for audiences in the 1970s, we were already living in an era in which Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice could comfortably slip between the sheets together, thus rendering the sexual humor in West's farce seem about as daring as a Disney production.
The film, directed by the generally admirable Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), presents West as Marlo Manners, a legendary diva of the cinema who still causes hearts to flutter whenever she makes a public appearance. When we first see her (a full 8 minutes into the movie), she is checking into a London hotel to enjoy her honeymoon with her latest (and sixth husband), handsome young Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton). It isn't long before Barrington realizes that Marlo has a fanatical fan base and a seemingly endless string of former and would-be lovers clamoring for her attention. Among them, some ex-husbands including a crazy movie director (Ringo Starr) and a gangster who was presumed dead (George Hamilton). Then there is a Soviet diplomat (Tony Curtis) who is the central figure in a world peace conference that coincidentally happens to be taking place in the same hotel. Add to the zany mix her hyper-active business manager (Dom DeLuise), a singing waiter (Alice Cooper!) and a fey dress designer (The Who's Keith Moon) and you probably have to admire whoever managed to get this eclectic group of talented people together, even if they all should have known better. West's old pal George Raft even shows up and rides an elevator with her. The razor-thin plots involves Marlo trying to consummate her marriage to Barrington, who is a naive virgin who inadvertently implies to Hollywood gossip guru Rona Barrett that he is gay. In fact, just about the only audience that might derive any visual pleasure from the film are gay males, due to the abundance of scantily-clad muscle men who flex their abs every time Marlo walks by. To make matters even more bizarre, the cast occasionally breaks out into songs as though this was some old Busby Berkeley musical. The nadir of this is when an understandably embarrassed Dalton is forced to sing the Captain and Tennille's Love Will Keep Us Together to his on-screen bride. (Presumably, Dalton left this achievement off his resume or he probably wouldn't have ended up playing James Bond.) In the midst of this madness, Marlo also barges in on the peace conference and convinces all the diplomats (including Walter Pidgeon!) to engage in some kumbaya moments of diplomacy.
West was certainly a screen legend in her time and one of the most liberated women in show business. You have to admire her for promoting women's lib and sexual freedom in an era in which most people were tone deaf to such sentiments. However, knowing when to quit was obviously not one of her attributes. As Marlo brings twenty-something men to states of sexual frenzy in Sextette, you keep waiting for at least one joke regarding the fact that the woman was in her 80s when the film was made. Unfortunately, throughout the entire movie, no such realization is apparent. Men salivate over her, as West creaks stiffly from frame to frame looking like the Marie Antoinette figure from Madame Tussaud's wax museum. West had parlayed her limited schtick of tossing off sexually suggestive one-liners into a full time screen career, not so much acting as merely quipping. It may have worked great in her prime opposite Cary Grant and W.C. Fields, but it's a sad spectacle to see Ringo Starr try to control his urges in her presence. The only cast member to emerge unscathed is DeLuise, who gives an energetic and amusing performance that even sees him jumping atop a piano and engaging in an impressive tap dance.
The Scorpion DVD transfer is excellent and includes an extensive and spellbinding interview with Ian Whitcomb, who served as a music consultant on the film. A good friend of Mae West's, he relates affectionate tales of their relationship and provides some uncomfortable details about the filming. (West would periodically seem to lose her powers of concentration and often had to have her lines read to her through an ear piece.) He also reads entries from his diary that were written during production. There is also a very informative on-screen essay by film critic Dennis Dermody that explores the film's disastrous reception by critics and the public. An original TV spot is also included.
Sextette easily manages to gain that rare status of being so bad, it's good. You must add this DVD to your collection.
(Look for an article about the making of the film in Cinema Retro #26)
In the wake of unexpected critical acclaim for director Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night in 1964, studios scrambled to emulate the success of that first feature film starring The Beatles. Over a period of a few years, many bands found themselves top-lining major feature films. Most were mindless exploitation films, a few others more ambitious in their goals. Fitting snugly into the latter category was Having a Wild Weekend (released in the UK under the title Catch Us If You Can.) The film represents the only movie starring the Dave Clark Five, one of the more popular bands to emerge during that marvelous era in the 1960s when Great Britain shed its post WWII doldrums and came to dominate international pop culture. The band was one of many who rode the coattails of The Beatles to the top of the charts, but they had their own unique style of songs and music that resulted in some memorable hit songs that still hold up well today. At one point, the DC5 was so popular that they appeared on The Ed Sulllivan Show more than any other British band. Their feature film debut is impressive only in the sense that it afforded a young documentary maker named John Boorman the opportunity to make his feature film directorial debut. There is scant evidence that Boorman possessed the kind of unique vision that would result in Point Blank only two years later and Deliverance five years after that, but Weekend is different from most teen idol movies of the era both in terms of its visual content as well as its message. The script is also unique in that the DC5 don't appear as themselves, thus its the only film of its kind that doesn't showcase the band members playing music on screen. In fact, they don't even play musicians, but rather, stuntmen who are employed to appear in an expensive nationwide British ad campaign designed to encourage meat eating. This rather uncommercial message is prettied up by having the campaign center on a perky, sexy young blonde named Dinah (Barbara Ferris), who is an omnipresent force in London, appearing on billboards and TV ads to promote the meat industry in a fun way. The DC5 appear with her as window dressing, always in the background of the ads. During the shooting of a particularly frustrating TV commercial taping, Dinah and her boyfriend Steve (Dave Clark) engage in an abrupt act of rebellion by stealing a sports car they drive in the ad and absconding to an island that Dinah hopes to retire to. This sets in motion a massive search by the advertising agency executives that becomes a nationwide obsession. Rumors circulate that Steve has kidnapped Dinah, something that turns out to be an unexpected boon for the ad agency since it results in a great deal of free publicity for "The Meat Girl". Steve and Dinah's directionless meanderings around the island prove to be less joyful than expected. They encounter a colony of hippies but find they are as shallow as the Establishment types they are rebelling against. They also blunder into the middle of military war games in the film's zaniest and least credible sequence. Ultimately the other members of the DC5 join them but even they are being pursued by agents for the advertising agency as well as local police. Steve brings them to a farm run by a boyhood idol who he used to visit as a child only to find he has "sold out" too and is looking to use Dinah as a tourist attraction. Disillusioned, Steve and Dinah ultimately come face to face with their employers and Steve gets a downbeat life lesson on how shallow even Dinah's principals can be.
Having a Wild Weekend is a strangely humorless film with the DC5 songs rather awkwardly interwoven. Even a sequence (filmed in Bath) that depicts a massive, wild costume party doesn't deliver the amusement you might expect. However, it does offer the unique opportunity to see people dressed as Stan Laurel, the Marx Brothers and Frankenstein cavorting in the ancient Roman baths. Dave Clark has movie star looks and admirable screen presence. He should have pursued a career as an actor. However, the other band members have scant opportunity to present themselves as individuals. This includes lead singer Mike Smith, who sang most of the group's hit songs even though Clark would lip synch to them in live appearances to appear as though he sang them on the recordings. Plot angles appear promisingly but get dropped abruptly including a potentially promising sequence in which Steve and Dinah are invited home by a middle aged couple (excellently played by Robin Bailey and Yootha Joyce) who turn out to be setting them up for some sexual swinging. Director Boorman eschews studio sets for actual locations and this gives the movie a sense of vibrancy it might otherwise have lacked. Manny Wynn's black and white cinematography does justice to the British countryside and he presents the action through some interesting camera angles.
The downbeat storyline won praise from critics at the time because it so deftly avoids emulating the ridiculously cheery productions that were generally aimed at teens. It holds up well as a curiosity and affords some nostalgic insights into a time when the counterculture movement was on the verge of exploding. The DVD presentation by the Warner Archive presents a crisp, clean transfer sans any extras. One hopes that someday, Dave Clark might be asked to participate in a special edition of the movie.
The Cohen Media Group is a relatively new company that, over the last four years, has produced and distributed primarily highly acclaimed international art house films. The company's latest release on DVD and Blu-ray is Farewell, My Queen, director Benoit Jacquot's French-language 2012 period costume drama that centers on the outbreak of the French Revolution, as experienced by Sidonie (Lea Seydoux), a young woman who has the seemingly enviable position of being "The Queen's Reader". Her primary responsibility is to literally read books to Marie Antoinette (that's right, the nobility didn't even have to strain their eyes). Sidonie, a twenty-something country girl, is in awe of the Queen and is slavishly devoted to her needs. As played by Diane Kruger, Marie Antoinette is presented as the undeniably spoiled wife of Louis XVI, but the portrayal humanizes her. Marie Antoinette, like so many famous (or infamous) historical figures, has often been reduced to a caricature on the silver screen. In Jacquot's film, however, she is allowed to show an intelligent and softer side, as evidenced through the respect she shows Sidonie. The film, based on Chantal Thomas' 2003 novel, constrains the action to four pivotal days in French history. When we are first introduced to Sidnonie and her Queen, the palace staff is living comfortably in the lavish palace of Versailles. The story makes it quite clear that Sidonie's interest and devotion to the Queen extends beyond her duties as a household servant- she is clearly sexually attracted to her. The screenplay capitalizes on long-standing rumors that Marie Antoinette was a not-so-closeted lesbian. (Pamphlets were distributed in Paris during the day satirizing Marie's alleged participation in lesbian orgies.) Historically, this was never proven, but the rumors seem to have been inspired by her marriage to a disinterested monarch who slept in a separate bedroom and all but ignored her. Marie also undoubtedly had very close relationships with other women that helped keep the rumor-mill going. In Farwell, My Queen, Marie Antoinette comes out of the closet to Sidonie, but the girl's romantic fantasies are crushed when it is revealed that the Queen's true love is Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), a married duchess with an independent streak who has engaged in a lesbian relationship with Marie. The lives of the aristocracy and those who serve them are abruptly sent into turmoil when news arrives from Paris that the peasants have stormed the Bastille. Panic sweeps through the palace, and chaos reigns as the King's guards desert, leaving the pampered royals to fend for themselves for the first time in their lives. In the midst of the madness, King Louis (a peripheral figure in the story, but well-played by Xavier Beauvois), opts not to flee along with his "loyal" staff and agrees to go to Paris to meet the dissidents in hopes of retaining the throne. Left to her own devices, Marie Antoinette believes she is doomed and enlists Sidonie in a high-risk plan to secure the safety of Gabrielle, whose excesses have made her particularly reviled by the populace.
This is a lavish, big-budget production that brings to mind the visual splendor of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Romain Winding's cinematography is an inspiration, turning the opulent backdrops into cinematic "paintings". Director Jacquot defies the odds by successfully telling a female-driven story from a female point-of-view. The character of Sidonie is our protagonist, but she remains an enigma and we never do understand how a peasant girl became employed by the royal court. Her sexual obsession with the Queen is also complicated by the fact that she is clearly bi-sexual, as evidenced by an aborted sex act with a hunky palace servant. It's as though these ambiguities are intentional, designed to lead the audience to ponder what other mysteries lie behind the lead characters. Where the film excels is in the scenes that show just how abrupt life and politics changed with the storming of the Bastille. In days when communications were not instantaneous, the rumors prevailed and one can sympathize with the characters who hang on for any sliver of information that might indicate if they will share the same fate as the warden of Bastille, who was decapitated with a pen knife. The movie is about unrequited love in several relationships. The marriage between Louis XVI and Marie is one of convenience, a complete sham designed to produce heirs to the throne. The love affair between Marie and Gabrielle is distinctly tilted in the latter's favor, as evidenced by Gabrielle's immediate acceptance of Marie's offer to allow her to flee France with her husband, thus leaving the Queen to face her fate alone. The romantic desire by Sidonie to be Marie's lover is not fulfilled, as the Queen sees her only as a useful tool to help protect the woman she really loves. If there is a drawback to the movie, it's in the fact that that the ending, which finds Sidonie gamely being used as bait to smuggle Gabrielle and her husband to Switzerland, comes a bit abruptly and doesn't follow through on the fate of our heroine. Similarly, some viewers might be frustrated by the fact that the fates of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI are never explored after Sidonie leaves the palace. This is understandable, not only because the film is about a young woman, not the monarchy, and also due to the fact that, as a French production, it is assumed its intended audiences knows full well about the unspeakable fate that befell the royals. Still, it shouldn't have to be said that viewers would benefit from having at
least a modicum of knowledge about the historical references made in the
film, as this is clearly not a production designed to appeal to the Transformers crowd.
The Blu-ray release is gorgeous on every level. Extras include a post-premiere interview with Benoit Jacquot, conducted by Kent Jones of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and on-set interviews with the director and cast members. There is also a theatrical trailer that slightly exaggerates the lesbian angle, which seems to be used to market everything other than potato chips in recent years. In all, however, it's an outstanding presentation of a very worthy film that many would not otherwise have been exposed to.
Much has been stated about the glory days of European film-making having been relegated to the post-WWII period through the 1970s. However, intelligent movies such as Farewell, My Queen, which boasts excellent performances by all as well as impressive direction, prove that there are substantial talents working in the European cinema. Perhaps these films don't benefit from the kind of sensational, world-wide publicity that was accorded to the works of Fellini and Bunuel, but there is a vast array of productions that are well-worth viewing, as evidenced by this release.
The Warner Archive continues its string of burn-to-order releases of "Poverty Row" B movies that were originally produced by other studios. The latest release, I Escaped From the Gestapo, is a real hoot that was originally produced by Monogram Pictures, which afforded budgets to directors and producers that were only slightly more extravagant than those spent on home movies. The film is primarily remembered as a would-be vehicle for actress Frances Farmer, who was not able to continue filming due to her legendary mental breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalized. Beyond that tragic association, however, the movie is a relentlessly upbeat, over-the-top propaganda film that afforded a rare leading role to Dean Jagger. The opening plot device is actually rather clever. It finds Jagger as Torgen Lane, a master forger and counterfeiter who is doing time in a federal prison. He finds himself the center of an audacious and dangerous plot to break him out of "stir" (to use the jargon of the era.) The plan succeeds and Lane is brought to meet his mysterious benefactors. It turns out they are a ring of counterfeiters themselves and they make their headquarters in an administrative office of a bustling amusement arcade. The head of the ring is Martin (John Carradine), a seemingly friendly but business-like man who explains to Lane that he's now working for them. Lane suspects he has just been sprung from prison in order to become a prisoner of sorts once again. Martin tells him that the ring needs his talents to spread counterfeit money and that he'll be handsomely rewarded, but it means being confined for much of the day in a small room and under constant supervision. Lane soon discovers that the ring has a more nefarious purpose: it's actually a front for Gestapo agents who are using the phony money to flood the national economies of the Allied nations in the hopes of wrecking their economies. They also use the novelty booth in which servicemen can record greetings to their families and sweethearts in order to gain information about troop and ship movements that they use to devastating effect. Upon hearing this, Lane does what all truly stupid movie heroes do: instead of playing it cool, he let's them know he is on to them. Not surprisingly, the Nazis are unswayed by his threats and immediately promise to kill his elderly mother if he doesn't continue to cooperate. It will spoil nothing to tell readers that, in the end, Lane emerges triumphant. He may be a no good, counterfeiting scoundrel but dammit, he's a patriotic American no good, counterfeiting scoundrel who isn't about to let these goose-stepping goons lay a finger on Uncle Sam.
The film, directed by one Harold Young, moves at a brisk clip through its abbreviated 76 minute running time. The wise-cracking Jagger makes for an amusing leading man and Mary Brian is thrown in as attractive window dressing, playing a girl who works in the arcade who establishes a flirty relationship with Lane. In the film's most unintentionally funny sequence, Lane uses psychological tactics to persuade a young German agent that Brian represents everything that is pure in America, from its women to its music. He even plays records of classical German symphonies that were banned under Hitler. After a few short hours of this persuasion, the young Nazi is practically vying to be the next John Wayne. Half the fun is watching the inimitable John Carradine in full stock company villain mode. There were few actors who could do so much with such lame material and dialogue, but he's a delight to watch. It's also a good deal of fun to relish the scant production values. Most of the "action" is confined to two rooms and the amusement arcade doesn't seem to extend beyond 25 square feet.
The film was re-issued under the title of No Escape, and notes on the DVD sleeve explain that it why this print bares that title. We have no idea why the title was changed except, possibly, because it was somewhat misleading. Gestapo agents were generally seen as menaces within Germany and occupied territories, not as foreign spies. The title clearly implies a thriller set within the German sphere of influence and this is reinforced by a misleading poster that shows a character clad in a Gestapo uniform that never appears on screen.
The fact that such B movies are now being made available in pristine DVD editions is something to celebrate. Although these modest productions afforded modest pleasures, they represent a bygone era of film-making that is, fortunately, now being preserved for posterity.
The Warner Archive has released the 1961 low-budget Allied Artists production of Operation Eichmann on burn-to-order DVD. The film was clearly rushed into production in order to capitalize on the recent capture of the infamous Nazi war criminal who enthusiastically took up the assignment of how to orchestra the logistics of carrying out the Holocaust as part of Hitler's evil scheme to rid occupied Europe of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Third Reich. The film opens with a chilling (but fictitious) statement by Eichmann, who threatens to oversee a revival of world Naziism. The movie's cheap production design undermines the emotional impact of the story. (The scenes in Auschwitz are no more expansive than those seen in contemporary TV dramas at the time.) The B&W cinematography, however, is suitably stark and provides an appropriate downbeat atmosphere. The film strays so far from the facts regarding Eichmann's life on the run that you wonder how producers felt it could be sold to contemporary audiences who were mesmerized by Eichmann's capture by the Israeli Mossad in Argentina. The movie skips over such controversies as Eichmann having been placed in custody of American forces in the aftermath of the war, only to be released due to a blunder about his identity. There is no mention of the cover-ups American intelligence engaged in so that Eichmann would never be found or arrested. (The fear was that Eichmann's arrest might reveal the fact that the American government had willingly hired prominent Nazis for intelligence purposes during the Cold War era.) Nor is there a nod to the fact that Eicmann successfully lived undisturbed in Argentina thanks to an assist from a Catholic bishop who sympathized with the plight of Nazis on the run. Although Eichmann lived in Argentina with his wife and children, the movie presents him as a bachelor who is accompanied by a ditzy and greedy girlfriend, a fictional character named Anna (Ruta Lee). The cinematic Eichmann has a tempestuous relationship with his paramour, but can't seem to leave her. He routinely offers her bribes to stay with him during his life on the run. Finally, the film embellishes Eichmann's daring capture on an Argentinian street by adding a sub-plot about other ex-Nazis who are planning to kill him for making his plans to revive the Third Reich too blatant.
Where the film, directed by R. G. Springsteen, deserves some admiration is in its determination not to sugar coat the atrocities that Eichmann and his cohorts engaged in. Nazis were not the wild-eyed monsters often depicted in propaganda films. Rather, most were distinguished by their sheer banality. Eichmann considered himself simply a bureaucrat who cited the usual defense that he was "just following orders." Likely, he believed that to be the case. Countless bankers, lawyers and accountants eagerly put their talents to use for Hitler with nary a distinction about the larger consequences of their actions. It was Eichmann, however, who rose to the challenge of orchestrating the logistics of transporting millions of poor souls to their deaths. He had not a shred of compassion and treated human beings as he might cattle. The film features Werner Klemperer in a rare starring role as the titular fiend. He delivers an outstanding performance that never sinks into parody or over-acting. Curiously, one of his co-stars is John Banner, who would play Sgt. Schultz opposite Klemperer's Emmy-winning portrayal of Col. Klink on Hogan's Heroes several years later. It is morbidly fascinating to see these two future icons of TV comedy on screen in such a somber tale. Banner plays the commandant of Auschwitz and wines and dines Eichmann at his family dinners even as the ovens are being constructed and the gas chambers are running at full capacity. It serves as a reminder that both Klemperer and Banner were well-regarded as dramatic actors prior to their comedic achievements on television.
Operation Eichmann is a flawed, but compelling look at a Nazi technocrat who personally caused the demise of millions of innocent people. The film could have been so much more impressive, had the story not been relegated to a factually-flawed script and a routine director. Nevertheless, the fascinating performance by Werner Klemperer is reason enough to recommend this release.
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Twilight Time has released the 1959 Fox film adaptation of William Faulkner's classic novel The Sound and the Fury as a limited edition (3,000 unit) Blu-ray release. The film was a follow-up venture between producer Jerry Wald and director Martin Ritt to their screen version of Faulkner's The Hamlet, which was released the previous year under the title of The Long, Hot Summer. That movie was a boxoffice smash that helped elevate Paul Newman's status as one of the industry's most promising leading men. Good fortune did not smile on The Sound and the Fury, however. Ritt's screen version made dramatic changes to the acclaimed source novel, eliminating much of the plot and eschewing much of the drama that extended over a period of many years into a segment centering on a few days. Ritt and the screenwriters also chose to tell the story through the eyes of a teenage girl who is only a secondary character in the novel. The result was scathing reviews from disappointing critics, though the film has been more favorably re-evaluated in recent years.
Faulkner, like his contemporary Tennessee Williams, excelled at dramatizing the plight of dysfunctional people in the modern South. The story focuses on the Compson family, a once prominent staple of a backwater Mississippi town. They've fallen on hard times. The deceased father ran up debts prior to drinking himself to death and left it to his son Jason (Yul Brynner, sporting a full pate of hair) to salvage the family mansion. He's done so by selling the family store to someone else and he has to suffer the daily indignity of working for the new owner. On the surface, he's a hard-nosed, humorless man whose only vice seems to be chain smoking cigars and cigarettes. In truth, he has little to be joyful about. The mansion is in decay and he is stuck caring for an alcoholic brother (John Beal) who doesn't work at all, as well an aging, constantly griping mother (Francoise Rosay) and a younger brother, Ben (Jack Warden) who suffers from a mental disability and cannot speak. His biggest challenge is raising his step-niece Quentin (Joanne Woodward), a wayward teen grappling with issues of self-esteem and raging hormones. She's heading to the wrong side of the tracks and is in a constant state of rebellion. She hates Jason because of his disciplinary measures and takes up with a no-good but hunky carnival worker (Stuart Whitman) who is gearing up to relieve her of her virginity and any family savings she can pilfer so they can run away together. Tensions rise even further when Quentin's mother Caddy (Margaret Leighton) returns home, ostensibly to finally get to know the daughter she abandoned at birth. She gets a cold reception from Jason, who reminds her that while she was sleeping her way through the state, he was raising her illegitimate daughter and trying to overcome the social stigma so Quentin will have some self-esteem. Nevertheless, seeing she is desperate and homeless, he invites her back home. Quentin initially welcomes her estranged mom but quickly sees her as the selfish and vain woman she really is. Tensions in the household are brought to the boiling point and are sometimes only diffused by the family's long-time cook, Dilsey (the great Ethel Waters in her final screen role.)
The episodic screenplay meanders quite a bit, never reaching any kind of dramatic conclusion other than Quentin's ultimate acceptance that Jason has been acting in her best interests. This gradual realization leads to a couple of rather daring sequences in which it is made clear there is a sexual attraction between them. (The script emphasizes they are not technically related by blood, but there is an uncomfortable feeling to these scenes that reminds one of the similar relationship between Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn in John Huston's The Unforgiven. The studio shamelessly capitalized on the incest angle, creating a misleading poster of Brynner standing above Woodward, who is laying prone on her bed. The tag line even proudly proclaimed that the story broke "the unwritten commandment!") The movie is more satisfying in parts than as a whole, but is consistently engrossing thanks to the uniformly fine performances. Brynner is especially good, playing against type as an everyday man trying to cope with leading a middle class existence. Woodward is excellent in terms of performance but she is ultimately miscast for one reason: she was 29 years old at the time and simply isn't entirely convincing as a teenage girl for obvious reasons. Margaret Leighton is in full Blanche Dubois mode as the faded and sullied Southern belle and Whitman provides fine support as the transient heel with seduction on his mind.
Ritt, like Faulkner, also always excelled at making films about deeply troubled people having to interact with each other and The Sound and the Fury is no exception. Aside from his fine direction, the movie boasts a terrific jazz score by Alex North that alternately evokes romance and suspense. The fine Blu-ray presentation doesn't have any extras but there is that mainstay of Twilight Time releases: the collector's booklet with excellent liner notes by Julie Kirgo. (Read it after you view the film, as it unavoidably contains spoilers.)